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The goal of the River to River series "Leaving Afghanistan" is to understand a dimension of the war's impact by focusing on the individual experiences of Iowans who have done all types of work in Afghanistan over the last 20 years.

A Former Navy Aviation Mechanic Reflects On Her Service

Former Navy aviation mechanic Maria Berdecia, of Davenport, joined the military shortly after graduating from high school in 1997. She has been deployed to countries in the Middle East multiple times, including in September of 2001, when she learned about the 9/11 terrorist attacks while stationed in Masirah, Oman.

Berdecia spoke on River to River in July about her experience in the Navy and her thoughts on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. You can hear Berdecia's full interview here.

On being deployed on September 11, 2001

“During 9/11 we were deployed. So when we deployed, we really weren't expecting anything to happen. It was just like a routine deployment. You know, we've done this — that was my third time now.”

“It's a small island, two hours flight time from Afghanistan and two hours flight time from Bahrain. But it was just mostly like a flight where planes would come in, they would fuel if they needed anything done, they would get it done and then take off, basically, like a little pit stop.”

“I went in the office and everybody was standing there watching the news. I thought they were watching a movie. And all of a sudden, you see the planes hit. And you see people jumping out of the Twin Towers. And at first — I don't know if my mind was registering — but I was just kind of like 'you brought me in to watch a movie? You know, like I could have been done with my work.' But they kept playing it over and over again, and I felt like my mind was just rejecting that, because, to me, it didn't make sense.”

“They called a town hall meeting. And I can remember the workers there, I can remember us, you could hear a pin drop, and everybody was in shock. We could not believe that this had happened to the U.S. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I was going to see that. So we were told, essentially, since we were there already, and we had been training for all of this, that the job was going to change. From that point on, we started ordering body bags, and we started just getting ready for casualties.”

“We started running as a command. We started doing watches. Everything just changed. I just wanted to make sure that I was ready, in case one of the planes needed to be worked on or fix or, you know, they needed it for the next mission.”

“We were told that there had been casualties, and that they were going to be kept in our hangar until they got a flight back to the states. So there were two casualties, and they were in our hangar for a couple of days, waiting to be sent back here (to the United States). And I remember, when they were loaded onto the C-130 or one of their Air Force planes, I can just remember seeing the caskets being walked out and loaded onto the plane. And I just kept thinking that could be us. But, you know, I've still got to be ready. It was a scary thought, that we might not make it back.”

On being a woman in the military

“When I came in, there weren't that many female mechanics. I mean, it was really male-dominated. I was told that I didn't belong in the Navy, women didn't belong in the military, and women belonged in that office or in the kitchen, stuff like that. I was harassed, I got into a few altercations. Just because, you know, it's just so tough to just hold back. So I kind of, I think going in, I was very naive. I didn't know — I was very naive about everything. And I'm just getting there, and getting to know how people were or their thoughts. It was really hard. So I kind of had to grow a thick skin, I should say. You know, I had to prove myself every day, for sure.”

“After my 2005, 2006 deployment, we came back, and, a few months later, I was pregnant with my my youngest, and I was basically forced out of the Navy, I was told I was getting 'other than honorable,' (discharge) because I was pregnant. At the time, I was just in shock because here I was, almost 10 years in, and I'm just going to get other than honorable because I was pregnant. So I went and talked to JAG and JAG, they told me that, 'they can't do that, so you're entitled to all your benefits, you're entitled to an honorable discharge.' So I went back to the command, and I told them, I said, 'I'll get out. I won't fight it. But this is what JAG told me.' So they said, 'OK, you have three days to get out.' So it was a really rough transition for me. I only had maybe two jobs before the military. The military was all I knew. And when I got out, it was difficult.”

On life after the military

“One day I went to pick up my husband from work. And I remember I was just, I wasn't feeling like myself, so I picked him up. He might have said good morning. But I just felt this rage inside and (I thought), 'I need to make it to the VA, I need to make it to the VA.' So I went to the VA. And I was diagnosed with PTSD, and then they said, 'OK, so have a good day,' basically. And I was like, OK, so now what? Like, I don't know what this is . How is this going to help me?”

“I do struggle still, but it's not like it was back then. The VA has come a long way. They have a lot of classes. I have an amazing support system with my husband and my children, my family, my extended family, my in-laws. They're all they've all been amazing to me. So that has helped me to be where I'm at right now.”

“We tried. My thoughts on the withdrawal — you know, it's about time. Twenty years is a long time. We've all lost loved ones, friends during and after their military service. I just think that we tried for 20 years, and there's still stuff going on over there.”

“My hope is that they (Afghan people) do, especially the women, they get a voice, and that they can succeed, only on their own. I met wonderful people when I was there…they were amazing people. I feel like I can't stand here and just tell them how they should be, because this has been going on more than 20 years. I can't be telling you 'my way is the right way.'”

Matthew was a producer for IPR's River to River and Talk of Iowa
Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River
Caitlin Troutman is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio