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Soldier still endures the battle within

GULFPORT — She looks young and petite, waiflike in T-shirt and shorts. The only clue to who she really is, or was, is a slight toughness in her voice, a commanding directness, a clear vibe that this is someone who could, under certain circumstances, pull the trigger.

The girl in the T-shirt was the lieutenant colonel who trucked duffel bags of cash around Baghdad, who fed donkeys to Saddam's lions, who brought home a Bronze Star, who also brought home a strange illness and a whole lot of emotional ambiguity.

The story of Army Lt. Col. Kathryn Champion, 43, parallels the story of the war. She won plenty, lost plenty. She accomplished a lot, accomplished little. She looks good, feels bad. She can't say what her story means. The ending hasn't been written. It's as though she has circled back to the beginning. She's Kathy again, just Kathy, starting over with nothing.

• • •

Kathy is an honorably discharged veteran being cared for at the VA Medical Center at Bay Pines for multiple sclerosis and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Kathryn Champion was an Army reservist and school teacher who rose from the ROTC to the command of an all-male "civil affairs" unit in Iraq. Her job was laughably uncivil. It was basically to dodge bombs while dispersing wads of money to pacify and theoretically rehabilitate war-ravaged neighborhoods west of the Tigris River.

That was two years ago. It's hard to see today's Kathy in such a role. She lives in limbo in a friend's Gulfport home. She has been driven out of teaching by rowdy middle schoolers. She feels chronically tired. She injects herself with an interferon drug to slow her MS. She's dependant on disability pay. She's navigating, in a haze of sickness, three of the most complex bureaucracies in existence: VA health care, Social Security and VA disability benefits.

• • •

But about Saddam's lions:

There were 65 of them. They fell under the job she had in Alpha Company 448, Civil Affairs Battalion, a Special Forces group that operated out of Camp Liberty, northeast of the Baghdad airport. She directed 32 men. Their mixed-bag mission was to recruit Iraqis to rebuild medical clinics, repair water plants, reopen schools. Their task was also to pay cash from duffel bags to local contractors, and to babysit those lions.

Lt. Col. Champion's unit had inherited the Army's mission to restore the Baghdad Zoo. The zoo, like so much else there, had a cruel and crazy history. It had long been denounced as inhumane, its animals had long starved under U.N. sanctions. Finally, the zoo was decimated during the U.S. invasion of Baghdad.

Lions escaped into the city, had to be shot or rounded up with armored vehicles. The zoo was looted, hundreds of animals were either turned loose or eaten. In September 2003, an Army civil affairs specialist was mauled by a Bengal tiger during an after-hours party at the zoo. The tiger was shot to save the soldier. The soldier, arm shredded, never fully recovered. He died in 2007.

That was the zoo Kathryn Champion inherited.

Much of it was downright fun. She played with lion cubs. She was awed by the zoo's royal thoroughbreds. She bargained for two white tigers from Turkey. She strengthened security, helped get rid of the barbed wire. But she also had those 65 lions on her hands.

It involved a feeding ritual that a science teacher from Washington State could not have imagined as her Iraq assignment. It's documented on her home computer: Donkeys led past cages of hungry cats, slaughtered, then served up for lion-sized orgies of leg of donkey.

• • •

Everything about her mission, even the rare successes, seemed to have that same touch of surreal weirdness.

During her 15-month tour, she saw four soldiers die. Her convoy fell under fire seven times. After one roadside explosion, the rooftop gunner on her Humvee fell into her arms, his face peppered with shrapnel. She was his impromptu medic.

On another trip, her convoy was rammed by trucks front and back, forcing the Humvees to stop dead. The Humvees rammed back, forcing an opening. She shouted out her mantra: "Shoot and haul a--!"

Another day, she thought her nephew, Bruce, had been killed. She had raised him as her son since he was 2. He had been deployed to Iraq at the same time. He was a private who called the lieutenant colonel "Mom." Now his number had come up on a monitor as she reviewed the day's combat engagements at her Camp Liberty operations center. Bruce's tank had reportedly burned to the ground. Hours later, she learned the destroyed tank had been misidentified. Bruce was alive. Four others had died.

She dealt with Shiites, Sunnis and Wahabi tribes. She paid them to rebuild infrastructure and buildings. When the work was done, she gathered the contractors in a room, signed receipts and counted out dollars from a duffel bag. She carried as much as $1.2-million.

In particular, she was proud of helping build a rehab clinic for wounded Iraqi soldiers, if only because she had completed something. "It was finished and not blown up."

But most projects seemed like exercises in futility.

Work got finished, but by Iraqi standards, not her standards. "I wouldn't live in any of the places we built."

Young boys greeted her convoy. They took candy treats from her soldiers. But one village meeting was interrupted by explosions just outside. She found two of her parked Humvees blasted into smoking hulks. The young boys she'd just treated had disappeared.

Next visit, the same boys were back, welcoming her Humvees, begging candy. Friends or foes? Interrogate them? Treat them?

She had no answers.

• • •

Her last day, she was bombed. She was escorting her replacement to a meeting with a tribal council outside Baghdad. Her replacement was newly arrived, a reservist captain, formerly a manager for Hershey's candymaker. On the way, a bomb exploded near his vehicle. No one was hurt.

When they got back to base, the captain asked, "Whoa! Is this what it's like every day?"

Champion told him about her Day One. Her convoy of Humvees had departed Baghdad's Green Zone, started down "Route Irish," the road to the airport, when a bomb exploded about 20 yards away. She had yelled, "Does this happen every day?"

She offered the new captain her mantra:

"Shoot and haul a--."

• • •

Lt. Col. Champion did accomplish this: As an officer with rank and with money, she commanded. For 15 months, she made life-or-death decisions, tended to bleeding comrades, made men listen to her, even Muslim men. She stood her ground under fire. She was awarded a Bronze Star.

Kathryn Champion could take that much home.

She hoped.

She returned in May 2006. She mustered out of the Army and became schoolteacher Kathy again. By October, she was subbing at Madeira Beach Middle School.

On her first day, she says, a kid told her to "f--- off." She kicked him out of class. The boy walked home. Kathy was told she shouldn't have let him leave campus.

Public school was not foreign territory. She had taught middle school children for 20 years in her home state of Washington. And she had experienced every conceivable middle school drama — even her car was torched once. But Kathy couldn't pull herself together at Madeira. She ruminated over those Iraqi boys. Friends or foes? Treat them, or interrogate them?

In December, a child in class pushed her in the chest. She felt that old surge in her gut: Shoot and haul a--.

"I wanted to snap his head off."

Kathy hasn't been in a middle school classroom since.

She tried taking a biology class at the University of South Florida. She couldn't retain anything she read. She suffered headaches, fatigue, cramps in her limbs, blurred vision. All that led to examinations at Bay Pines and diagnoses last November of multiple sclerosis and post-traumatic stress disorder. Those led to a heavy regimen of medications, including the interferon drug Avonex, Valium and anti-depressants.

Dr. Kimberly Monnell, Kathy's neurologist at Bay Pines, says the MS — an inflammation of the central nervous system — may have been there all along, undiscovered during her years of service. Kathy's initial complaint at Bay Pines was chronic pain in her arms and back from dragging a wounded soldier out of a Humvee.

A fellow civil affairs officer, one who served in Iraq at the same time and now also lives a block away in Gulfport, hardly recognizes her.

"Kathy got that Bronze Star for a lot of reasons," said Lt. Col. Ana Christian. "She was constantly exposed. But she was the one people looked to to get things done. We're all carrying something — different degrees of post-traumatic stress — so I'm not surprised she's sick. I'm just surprised at the severity. To see her this way now makes me cry."

• • •

The question Kathy asks is: "Where is my zeal?"

She revisits Iraq through the photos and videos she stored on her laptop. She sees what she once was and did:

Kid soccer matches.

Black truck skeletons.

Group hugs.

Everywhere guns.

Santa hats.

Fireballs.

Body parts.

Flag football games.

Blindfolded prisoners.

Those amazing lions, which have made it against all odds.

Looking back suggests a way forward. Somehow, those lions survived.

John Barry can be reached at jbarry@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2258.



FAST FACTS

Veteran care

Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are entitled to what the VA calls five years of "enhanced health care" for illnesses and injuries related to their service. Every VA medical center has a team to evaluate returning veterans and to coordinate their care.

Soldier still endures the battle within 07/18/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 25, 2008 2:28pm]
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