Friday, February 05, 2010
Wounded Soldier Continues Service
By Kari Hawkins
Special to American Forces Press Service
Feb. 4, 2010 - A chance meeting with Army Lt. Gen. Kevin Campbell in June led to a dream job for Iraqi war veteran and Purple Heart recipient Army Sgt. Sophia Malone. The Alabama National Guard soldier, assigned to the community-based warrior transition unit here, is continuing her service to the nation as a human resources administrative assistant at the Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command. She takes care of administrative requirements for awards, appraisals, in-processing actions and other personnel actions.
"General Campbell wanted to bring wounded warriors on here," Malone said. "I met him at the wounded warrior Army birthday bash they had here in June. ... General Campbell is the best general I've ever met. He and his wife are awesome."
Malone, a former military police soldier, said her co-workers have eased her transition. "The people here work with me," she said. "I know I've found a home here."
In 1989, at age 19, Malone joined the active Army, serving a four-year stint that took her to Operation Desert Storm to support multiple-launch rocket system maintenance. With her enlistment, she continued her family's tradition of serving in the military. Her grandfather served in World War II, and her father was a Korean War and Vietnam War veteran. Her brother is in the reserves, and other family members also serve.
Malone left the Army for nine years, during which she married and had three children – twin daughters Lacy and Lexy, now 15, and son E.Z., who's 10. But 9/11 led her to recommit to national service.
"I had to do something. I had to get back in," she said. "I joined the National Guard so that I could be a part-time soldier and a mom at the same time. But I've been on active duty orders since 2005 as a battalion career counselor with the 203rd Battalion out of Athens. I've done more with the National Guard than I did while on active duty."
Her full-time Guard service included hurricane relief efforts following hurricanes Ivan, Rita and Katrina, during which she participated in military police security activities. In October 2006, she deployed with the 128th Military Police Company for a year to Iraq, during a time that was extremely volatile in the war-torn country.
"Our squad would get hit all the time. The 3rd Platoon became known as the IED magnets," she said, referring to improvised explosive devices. "We were rolling so much outside the wire that we took a lot of hits and we lived through a lot of ambushes. We were ambushed twice while crossing the Tigris [River}. Once, we rolled up on an IED attack on a unit where a guy with the Air Force was killed by shrapnel. We saw other convoys attacked and a lot of other stuff."
In one situation, when a mosque was blown up with a vehicle-borne bomb, Malone and several other soldiers from the 128th put their training as combat lifesavers to work. They assisted Army medical personnel in providing first aid to Iraqi civilians injured in the attack.
Malone served as a truck commander and team leader in a military police training force. She and her fellow soldiers helped to reduce the violence by training the Iraqi police force.
"I was part of a police transition team that trained Iraqi police," she said. "We left our base every day to travel to Iraqi police stations in the different cities."
Each day, upon arrival, her team, consisting of nine to 12 soldiers, would set up a security perimeter around the police station. Then they would assess the station's training and equipment needs, meet with police chiefs and establish working relationships with the police station personnel.
"We started from scratch at every station," she said. "At some of these stations, they had never seen an American soldier before. Ours was such a new mission, the rules of engagement were changing all the time, and we were all learning about the Iraqi society and culture. So it was a real challenge."
Malone and her team worked at police stations in Muqdadiyah and Tikrit. At times, Malone's unit went on patrols with Iraqi police officers and interacted with Iraqi civilians in the marketplaces. They also went on special missions with the 82nd Airborne Division, including a surprise visit at an Iraqi jail to search for contraband.
Malone said her gender met with varying results.
"Some Iraqi police chiefs wouldn't even talk to me or work with me at all," she said. "Others were very friendly. It depended on how Westernized they were. To many Iraqi police and civilians, I was a novelty. They were curious about me. They wanted to take pictures of me on their cell phones.
"But with the soldiers of the 128th," she continued, "I was very well respected. They knew me and how I reacted to certain situations, and they knew I wasn't afraid to do what I had to do. They knew I wouldn't expect them to do anything I wouldn't do."
There were plenty of intense situations that called on Malone to be at her best as her unit's lead soldier. Twice, Malone's convoy took direct hits as the lead vehicle traveling through Tikrit. The impact of the attacks left her with shoulder, neck and back injuries that cause her daily pain, and that she hopes to overcome through surgery and physical therapy.
The first direct hit with an IED happened in November 2006, when two anti-tank mines wired together exploded and damaged the front right corner of Malone's Humvee.
"The IED was set off by a command wire," she said. "The enemy panicked and set off the command wire too early. If he had waited, the IED would have been directly under my seat, and I wouldn't be here right now."
The explosion left Malone's Humvee severely damaged in the "kill zone." Malone, her driver, gunner, interpreter and Iraqi police logistics officer were evacuated by a quick readiness force. The attack left Malone with occasional tingling in her right arm.
In August 2007, a second direct attack occurred as Malone's Humvee, which was the lead vehicle carrying the platoon sergeant, was traveling on a main supply route. As they crossed a bridge, the Humvee traveled over a pressure plate, with the IED exploding directly on the passenger side of the vehicle.
"My arm was resting on the window," Malone said. "Some kind of slivers went into my arm, and it was injured. We were only 12 minutes outside the gate. The third truck in our convoy pulled us home. My gunner also had shrapnel injuries. We both went to the [combat support hospital]. But I was more upset that they blew up my truck than I was about what happened to me. I had just gotten it out of the shop."
After two days of recuperation, Malone was back out on missions. She safely returned to her family in October 2007. But instead of taking time to focus on recuperating from her experience and addressing physical ailments caused by the impact of the two IED explosions, Malone accepted an instructor position at Camp Shelby, Miss. Her days were filled with training other National Guard soldiers for deployments through various simulation exercises.
"I was still in Humvees rolling around," she said.
After the instructor assignment, Malone was required to go through a medical screening before she could return to her National Guard position with the 128th. Her shoulder and neck injuries were identified, and she was sent to Fort Gordon, Ga., in January 2009 for further medical evaluation.
"I was having numbness and tingling in my fingers and arm. I had neck and shoulder pain," she said. "But when you are out the wire and have all that adrenaline flowing, you don't think about that. And there was no way I was going to let my guys roll without me. In that situation, if you take one piece out of the unit, everyone else has to work twice as hard. There was no way I was going to do that to my guys.
"Then, when I was at Camp Shelby," she continued, "the workload was twice that of the students. As instructors, you spend a lot of time preparing and then a lot of time training. I didn't have time to think about what had happened to me and what was going on with my neck and shoulder."
But her time at Fort Gordon made Malone aware that she did need to address her physical issues. In April, she was assigned to the community-based warrior transition unit here, which has worked with her to develop a plan of surgical treatment, physical therapy and pain management that will get her back to 100 percent health.
The unit allows soldiers to live at home and work at local armories and installations while undergoing medical treatment.
"This is the best thing that ever happened to me," Malone said. "I am able to be with my children while at the same time I am getting healthy and I am able to work. It was like a sigh of relief for me when I got this assignment, because I can see a future here for myself as a civilian while still serving in the National Guard. I want to get healthy. I want to return to duty with the 128th."
Malone said she expects the 128th will be deployed again, possibly to Afghanistan. And she plans to be with them.
"That unit is filled with my brothers and sisters. We went through hell together. We have a very close camaraderie," she said. "I think we still have another deployment in us. I know I have another one in me. Serving my country, being with my guys -- it's kind of hard to explain."
Even with a Purple Heart to her credit, Malone brushes off any suggestions that she is a national hero.
"I wasn't the only one in a truck that got blown up," she said. "And there were the guys who risked their lives to pull us out of those situations. We all signed up. We knew what we were doing, what we were getting into. You do your job and keep going."
(Kari Hawkins works in the U.S. Army Garrison Redstone public affairs office.)