When Yolanda Lee signed up for the National Guard in 1993, combat was the last thing on her mind.
“I guess I knew it was a possibility, but I never even thought I’d end up overseas,” she said, laughing. “Back then, there was no way I thought we’d even see war again. I thought I’d join, spend a few years getting a trade, and then move on.”
But she stuck with the Guard longer than she had planned. She deployed to Iraq as a truck driver and found herself dodging gunfire, grenades and roadside bombs, even though she wasn’t supposed to be anywhere close to the front lines.
“You hear ‘logistics’ and you think, ‘Well, how hard could that be?’ ”
- Capt. Yolanda Lee
“There were some times I had to step back, try to evaluate where I had started and where I ended up,” the Army captain said. “In my wildest dreams, I never thought I’d be over there, actually engaged in battle. But, we were.”
Lee, now 37, is part of a generation of unexpected combat veterans, thanks to the amorphous nature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In past wars, convoy drivers, military mechanics and other behind-the-scenes specialists like Lee didn’t see regular combat duty. Women weren’t even allowed to be engaged in battlefield operations. National Guardsmen had never been mobilized in large numbers for overseas fighting.
But after more than a decade of nontraditional warfare, America has welcomed home tens of thousands of combat veterans like Lee, individuals who never joined the infantry but still saw some of the harshest battlefields.
Lee, who works full-time with the Guard in Washington, D.C., still only reluctantly sees herself as a combat veteran, although she’s quick to correct anyone who assumes that guardsmen and reservists never made it to the battlefield.
She was awarded a Bronze Star in 2005 for her work as an individual augmentee with the 42nd Infantry Division, where she served as a combat logistical patrol commander. Before arriving in Iraq, she always viewed herself as a truck driver, albeit a well-trained one.
“You hear ‘logistics’ and you think, ‘Well, how hard could that be?’ ” she said. “During that time, to be on the road, it was a very dangerous job.
“As a member of the Guard, we had trained and trained, but I don’t know if we took it all seriously. I like to think that we were highly prepared. But you don’t know what you know until you test it.”
Convoy runs frequently turned into ambushes and skirmishes. In June 2005, during what was supposed to be a quick trip off base, her 17-vehicle convoy was attacked and one of her gunners was killed by a massive roadside bomb.
Army officials lauded Lee’s calm thinking and quick actions that day. She snapped the stunned convoy back into focus, ordered the remaining vehicles to encircle the crippled truck and directed the capture of two enemy fighters as they fled.
The response was everything the military expects from its combat-trained troops. But for Lee, once the adrenaline of the moment had passed, it was a heartbreaking dose of reality, and a reminder that she was far from the career she had expected. But, it’s also a career she is proud of.
Lee said she is frequently perturbed by the number of civilians surprised to hear that guardsmen found themselves under fire, and by the number of young guardsmen enlisting today who think that they’ll never end up in combat.
“A lot of people have a perception that this war is still an active-duty war, and not a fight for all of the military,” she said. “They think that many of us were just the backup force.
“But that’s not the case. We all stood side-by-side in this fight.”