Women in combat
Colbert describes her experience in Iraq
By Robert Cloud
Laura Naylor Colbert began sharing her experiences in Iraq shortly after she returned home.
Deployed in Iraq from May 2003 to July 2004, Colbert’s perceptions of the occupation changed while she was there.
“I was very patriotic and I was up for adventure,” Colbert said about her decision to join the Wisconsin Army National Guard in March 2001.
At the time, she was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and needed assistance with her college costs.
“It was peace time and it sounded like a good way to give back,” Colbert said.
Initially, Colbert was proud of the schools and police stations American soldiers were building in Iraq and that she guarded.
Then a police station she guarded was blown up, killing 21 people. Children she had watched playing in the streets were among those killed in the attack.
In a letter Colbert wrote after her deployment had gone from six months to 10 months then to 14 months, she compared her experience in the military to prison.
“I used to trust our government,” Colbert wrote. “Isn’t it composed of the most intellectual and influential people in our country? After hearing no less than five redeployment dates, and getting our extension orders ten days prior to our departure, I am not so sure. I don’t think our government or leaders took into account what this extension has done to our company. They did not take into consideration the soldier, the person. We are not robots.”
Colbert said news of the four-month extension came shortly after a female gunner in her unit had been lost.
“It was traumatic,” she said.
Mortars and bombs
“We had to move to a more dangerous location, from a basement to tents that were mortared almost every night,” Colbert said.
She described how one night, a tent seven tents down from hers was destroyed by a mortar.
“I thought I was going to die,” she said.
Colbert recalls driving a Humvee when another Humvee located two vehicles behind her in a convoy was hit by an IED.
“I heard a banging noise and thought the gunner had slammed the roof of the Humvee,” she said, adding that she yelled at him to stop it.
“As that was coming out of my mouth, the Humvee shot past us and ran into a garage,” Colbert said.
The gunner of the bomb-damaged Humvee was knocked unconscious and found in a fetal position in the back of the vehicle.
“The driver was literally sucked out of the vehicle from the concussion of the bomb,” Colbert said, noting one side of the driver’s body was severely bruised.
Women at war
At the time she arrived in Iraq, the military believed women did not belong on the front lines.
“We were on the front lines,” Colbert said. “Once you were in Iraq, you were on the front lines.”
Colbert described some of the harassment women soldiers endured in Iraq.
She said their shower stalls were initially ponchos hanging from racks for privacy. Helicopters were flying low over the showers when women soldiers were using them.
“A soldier snuck into an all-female tent while we were sleeping and was looking at us with a flashlight,” Colbert said.
A male soldier also went into the female shower and hid in a stall.
Overall, however, Colbert said her company “did an excellent job of treating us equally.”
“Once those guys knew we meant business, it was a very respectful relationship,” she said.
Colbert believes the United States should have sent in an international police force rather than fighting a protracted war in Iraq.
“We tried to build up the Iraqi police force with corrupt police officers,” she said.
She noted that every police station she worked on was either destroyed while she was there or destroyed after she was gone.
She also thinks the United States should have developed a better understanding of Iraqi culture before trying to rebuild its government.
“When I first got there, an insightful interpreter told me the people of Iraq had been under such a strong, authoritarian regime that they didn’t know how to live with freedom,” Colbert said. “They took freedom to a level that turned into chaos.”
For the past two years, Colbert has been the assistant principal at Waupaca Middle School. Previously, she was an educator in Madison.
Colbert said she suffers from post-traumatic stress and has problems with fireworks and loud, banging noises.
She also has experienced nightmares, but they have since dissipated.
The presentations she gives about her experiences are self-healing, Colbert said.
She is also writing a book she hopes will be published at the end of this year or the beginning of next year.
Colbert will speak about her experiences as a woman in the military at 6:15 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 13, at Immanuel Lutheran Church, 1120 Evans Street, Waupaca. Enter through door No. 4.