Two months into her deployment to Afghanistan, Army National Guard reservist Eunice Guerra faced the reality of war in a moment she will never forget.
As an aviation operations specialist in the 1-285th Aviation Battalion, her duties included tracking battles, accounting for aircraft and sending out Quick Reaction Force and medevac units to necessary areas. It was early in the day when a Humvee was hit, and two soldiers needed medical attention.
"They brought them back to the FOB (forward operating base) we were at. One survived, and the other didn't. Two aircraft flew away, one with the hero and the other with the injured solider. In Afghanistan, when soldiers died, they were called heroes.
"I'll never forget how I felt. Because this was a smaller FOB, everyone came out and stood in a formation. As the two aircraft flew way, they all saluted the aircraft. It was really hard, but that's what happened. No one said war is pretty or that war is tame."
When asked what went through her mind at that moment, Guerra says, "This is real."
"Real" would be an apt adjective to describe Guerra. A petite, attractive woman who stands not quite 5 feet 2 inches tall, she's unafraid to voice her opinions about the war, its media coverage and the plight of soldiers.
She's especially respectful to all those who served before her. "Somebody else died so that I could sit here with you and tell you exactly how I feel," she says.
Guerra's service began at 17. Her mother had to sign a release because she was still in high school. Now 24, with a year-long tour under her belt and five more years to serve, she says she is seeking another deployment to Afghanistan.
Guerra says many people hold a lot of misconceptions, despite all the war coverage.
"I've seen a lot of good that we do. ... We saved so many civilian lives, so many Afghani police, Afghani military. People don't care. People don't want to read about the good things that you do. People just want to know if you killed a civilian. Forget all the good. No one wants to read about that."
Guerra says she saw first-hand the effect that U.S. forces had on Afghani lives.
"For a couple of weeks, I would guard the local nationals who were building soldiers' quarters--the brick-and-mortar guys. Some of them spoke English. They were happy we were there. They could work; their families were safe, and they could keep their money and land and not give it over to anyone. We provided a service to them."
Guerra says she would go back in a heartbeat and believes the majority of soldiers would say the same.
"A solider wants to be home and see their family, but, guaranteed, they want to complete this. A solider doesn't want to feel like you sent him out somewhere for nothing. ... If you stop now, it's like giving up. For what? You're going to tell me I went over there for nothing? I sent friends to die for nothing?"
Nine months into her deployment, Guerra experienced a soldier's death on a more personal level. She spent six hours working and monitoring a battle that is seared into her memory. Efforts were underway to rescue an injured solider. He did not survive.
The soldier was Sgt. Zachary Tellier, who died on Sept. 29, 2007. Guerra will spend this Veterans Day remembering him and those who came before him.
"A simple thank you means a lot. For the one person who says thank you, it outweighs the ... people who say you are wrong. That's the beautiful thing about this country: You don't have to agree. Just support your fellow Americans. That's all you have to do. Appreciate what that person is willing to do for you."
Guerra makes a valid point that it's not a solider who decides the mission; it's the leadership behind the solider. She says people often blame the messenger. She experienced this first-hand four years ago at the Tucson Mall. Guerra was off-duty but wore her uniform (something she rarely does) and was spit upon by a woman.
Sadly, some of us still need to learn to treat our vets with respect and common decency. Agree or disagree with the reasons behind the war, but appreciate the fact that our military personnel--on Veterans Day and all year--decide to walk a difficult road in service to the rest of us.
As Guerra says, "People don't wake up and think today (might be) my last day on Earth. A solider does."