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Sgt. Irene Acevedo Knows The Value Of Lifestyle, And Life Itself
BY MIGUEL PEREZ, STAFF WRITER
October 6, 2003
Back home in Clifton, Irene Acevedo is rediscovering the simple comforts she always took for granted. She keeps flushing the toilet, opening the refrigerator, flopping on her bed.
"People have no idea how much I missed these things," says Acevedo, 23. "The place where I've been living makes you appreciate the things we have here."
For the last five months, she's been residing in a U.S. Army base in southeast Iraq.
Acevedo is home on a 10-day leave, thanks to a new program that allows U.S. troops to take short breaks from the hardships of living in the hot and barren desert - and under the threat of being ambushed in a country where the war ended but American soldiers keep dying.
She returns there today.
Acevedo is a sergeant in the 310th Military Police Battalion of the Army Reserve in Diwaniyah. Her responsibilities include convoy security - escorting other soldiers along the routes where many have become targets.
"We haven't been ambushed, thank God, but when we are driving down the main supply routes, you are constantly getting shot at," she says. "It's like second nature. You hear the shots, and when you hear them getting closer, that's when you know you have to get out of there."
After landing in Baltimore last week, Acevedo was so anxious to get home - and so used to rushing through Iraqi roads - that she was pulled over for speeding on the Garden State Parkway.
"You are doing a good job over there," the state trooper told her after discovering the van was filled with returning soldiers.
"I was doing 86 in a 55 zone and he let me go with a warning," she says. "It was a nice welcome-home gift."
Since she's been back, Acevedo has been fascinated by how Iraq, from here, is seen from a different perspective.
"When you are here and you listen to the news, you hear the tally of soldiers getting killed and wounded and it doesn't hit you the same way," she says. "But when you are there and you hear that a bomb went off at a place where you had been only hours earlier, you say to yourself, 'My God, I was just there. That could have been me.'-"
As she sits in her living room, describing the dangers in Iraq, Acevedo's parents and grandparents try to smile - if only to hide their worried faces. Her grandparents came from Puerto Rico just to be with her during her leave.
Jose Rene Acevedo, who served nine years in the National Guard, says the hardest part of being a GI's parent is "not knowing what's going on, especially since sometimes we don't hear from her for several weeks.
"Watching the news has been very hard," he adds, "because you hear the reports of soldiers getting killed and every time you naturally wonder whether her unit was involved."
Even after he's confirmed that his daughter was nowhere near a particular act of violence, "you still feel bad, because you know that someone else is getting the news that their child was killed," he says.
His daughter tries to assure everyone that she's learned to live with the hardships of scorching heat, desert storms, spiders, scorpions, not to mention snipers and grenade throwers. But she doesn't do a very good job of convincing them.
"I tell them that it feels like when you are having a barbecue and you step too close to the grill. That's the way it is all the time," she says.
A 1998 graduate of DePaul Catholic High School in Wayne, Acevedo says she finds it hard to convey to her friends how living in a war zone has made her look at life from a different perspective.
"In the past I would leave things for later," she says. "And then after being in a place where you can die in a minute, you start thinking about all the things you have to get done in your life and you stop procrastinating. In Iraq, I was talking to a good friend of mine one morning and the next morning he was dead. So you can't leave things for later."
Before she was called to active duty in January, Acevedo was a customer service operator for AT&T Wireless and a criminal justice major at Bergen Community College. She wanted to be a cop.
"But I don't know now," she says. "After what I have been doing lately, I think I may want a less risky job."
The Military Police experience has also made her much more aware of her surroundings.
"Even here in New Jersey, I'm always looking to see who may be behind me," she says. "Everywhere I go, I think of 'What if?' I'm checking every vehicle that passes me, because when we are in Iraq we are constantly looking at every vehicle to make sure they don't have any weapons."
As a soldier in the Army Reserve, Acevedo had expected to give up one weekend per month and two weeks in the summer. When she was called to active duty in January, she left her full-time job, her part-time studies, and her brand new car. She spent three months at Fort Dix and on Easter went to war.
She doesn't know when she will be coming home for good.
"We always knew that something might happen," Acevedo says. "We didn't know it was going to be this bad and for this long."
Morale is low in her battalion - composed of soldiers from North Jersey and New York - primarily because they don't know how long they'll be there.
"If you are in the active Army and your contract runs out tomorrow, you go home," Acevedo says. "But if you are in the Reserves, you are stuck there until your unit releases you. ... If we had a [departure] date to look at, we could count down our days and our motivation would be higher. But since we don't have that, we have to live day by day.
Acevedo believes she's doing good over there.
"When we compare notes from when we first got there to where we are now, you can tell that we've made changes," she says.
But she has mixed feelings.
"One day you think you are doing a good thing because you meet people who appreciate the sacrifice you are making. But the next day ... some Iraqis are throwing rocks at you. And when we think that some of us are dying to protect people who are throwing rocks at us, you kind of wonder whether it is worth it."
American GIs can't understand how government officials "keep claiming that the war is over and yet there are people dying after it's supposedly over," Acevedo says. "It's pretty much unfair fighting. Soldiers are dying for no reason."
Her mother, Gloria, laughs as she looks at photos of her daughter squatting by a pail of water, washing her uniform in the middle of a desert.
"When she was here, she never bothered to turn on the washer," Gloria says. "And look at her now. ... She walks so fast I can't keep up with her. And at home she keeps flushing the toilet and opening the refrigerator."
Acevedo snaps: "It's because I have learned to appreciate those things that people here take for granted. Like, wow, cold drinks!"
Acevedo says she has gained eight pounds during her brief visit with her parents, her two sisters, and her grandparents.
"I ate a lot," she says. "I went to the movies, went to dinner, went to Atlantic City, lost a lot of money. I went shopping. You don't know what it means to walk into a store and have everything you need available."
She said she bought food and mailed it to herself in Iraq so that it will be there in time for when she arrives.
"The food that we eat there is nothing compared to what we can have here," she explains.
Acevedo is also psyching herself in other ways to accept how her life will change again this week.
"You say to yourself, 'In so many months, I don't know when, I'll be home,'-" she says, "and this will be just a memory."