This is the fourth in a series exploring favorite Veterans History Project collections, chosen by the staff of the American Folklife Center (AFC) and the Veterans History Project (VHP) to be included in our new online exhibit celebrating 20 years of VHP. Each post in the series will offer “love letters” written by AFC and VHP staff about their favorite collection. Here are additional posts in the series: Part I, Part II, and Part III.
The following is a guest post by Matt McCrady, a Digital Conversion Specialist for the Library of Congress.
At age 29, Marva Gray was a single mother to a young son, living in Charleston, West Virginia, and trying to make ends meet at a fast food job. Deciding to make a change, Gray talked to a Marine Corps Reserves recruiter, who discouraged her from joining. He said she was too small—she weighed less than 100 lbs.—and her desired Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) as an ammunition specialist was not open to women.
Disappointed, Gray went to the Army Reserves recruiter and found that the Army was more welcoming, though individual soldiers were not always as kind. Gray soon found that the state in which she was born and raised attracted a bit of unwanted attention. During Basic Training, her Drill Sergeant, a female herself, often made mocking reference to West Virginians. Once, when Gray and another woman from West Virginia were being issued their dress greens, the Sergeant made the comment, “I guess this is your first pair of shoes.” The other woman broke down in tears, but for Gray, this was her moment to confront the Sergeant. “I looked at her, and I told her, ‘No, my Grandfather made our shoes…Us girls from the holler, we had a lot of responsibilities, and one thing we didn’t have to worry about was that our Grandfather made our shoes.” Later, the Drill Sergeant came to her and said, “You showed me your toughness, and you’re going to go far in the military.”
Gray chose the Reserves because she believed it would allow her to maintain her civilian life and raise her son, who had a learning disability. And for most of her career, that is exactly how it worked out. The military not only helped her pay the bills; it allowed her to take classes at West Virginia State College in hopes of a better future for her and her son.
Everything changed one bright, early September morning in 2001. By December 2002, Gray was hurrying to take all her final exams on the same day in anticipation of being deployed. She wasn’t the only one in her school being called up. Between November and December 2002, West Virginia State College lost 75 students to deployment. Marva Gray was 44 years old and she would not return to West Virginia for 2 years.
Gray was first attached to a Puerto Rican Ordnance Company; she would deploy from Puerto Rico to Iraq on December 26. “Language was a barrier,” she would say, though she eventually picked up enough Spanish to get by. She was in for more culture shock when she arrived in Iraq. The first thing she was told in her orientation to the country was that she could never be by herself. She always needed a male companion, wherever she went. If she was escorting a civilian worker to their job on base, there would be at least one male soldier nearby, watching. The reason for measures that might be considered overly patriarchal was that there was a bounty on the heads of female U.S. soldiers.
Her two years in Iraq alternated between anxiety, horror, and long periods of boredom. She endured shelling during which she might be confined to a bunker for several days. She also spent seven or eight days guarding an ammunition depot during which nothing much happened at all. But she would say that for her, “The hardest part of Iraq was…how could anybody strap an explosive to a two year old?” (00:21:20.0).
Although she was not a combat soldier, she was a convoy commander transporting ammunition between bases. This put her in great danger every time she went out. On one such convoy, an IED went off under the vehicle in which she was riding. No one was hurt, though “it scared about 20 years off my life.” Sent to Nasiriya for a debriefing on the attack, she was waiting in a computer lab when she opened up an email from her son with the subject line “Duck.” He was referring to some photos of Canadian geese that he had sent her, but the coincidence was striking to her.
After two years in the war zone, Gray finally came home. For her, she had never seen anything as beautiful as when her plane crossed over West Virginia at night. Her homecoming was everything she could have wanted, but the adjustment to civilian life was not as easy. She had experienced a full range of trauma in Iraq, short of herself being wounded. Although she would tell people that she was fine, after about a year and a half, she realized that she wasn’t fine at all.
She wasn’t sleeping. If she heard a siren at night, it sent her into a “tailspin.” She couldn’t drive on the interstate, where someone might drive up on her bumper, or where she might see debris alongside the road that would remind her of an IED. Sometimes she had to pull off the highway and sit quietly until she could get a grip on herself. As a child, she had seen the effects of Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) on an uncle, who had served in Vietnam, so she knew she needed help.
Years later, she looked back on that time and said that the one thing she would tell current veterans was to not wait to seek help. “As soon as you step off the plane home, find the veteran’s hospital and walk in that door.”
She has no regrets about her experiences, however. “If it hadn’t been for the military, I’d have been one of those West Virginians who never left the borders.”