After nearly seven months of searing heat, infrequent showers and round-the-clock medical emergencies in Iraq, naval reservist Kim Ripoli didn't dare believe she was going home until her commercial jet left Kuwaiti ground.
"They told us a couple of times we were coming home and we didn't," she said last week. "Even when we were in Kuwait, they could have called us back."
It was late March when Ripoli's colleagues at the Central Florida Institute in Palm Harbor scrambled to find a going-away cake for her. She returned to Tampa International Airport on Oct. 25 and spent the first few days decompressing at her brother's home in Tampa.
On the front porch of his yellow-and-white bungalow, an American flag fluttered in the breeze. A large royal blue vinyl sign hanging from the rafters said:
Kim: Welcome home from the war. Congratulations on your promotion to chief. Your family is proud of you and your accomplishments.
"I'm pleased she was able to support her unit and her country, but I am thankful to have her home," said her brother, 44-year-old Chris Ripoli.
Kim Ripoli, 40, is a reservist with the 4th Medical Battalion, which provided stabilization and support for wounded Marines. She is on military leave from her civilian job as a surgical technology instructor at the Central Florida Institute, a postsecondary medical and dental training facility.
Her boss at the school, Gary Gossett, hastily organized her send-off party when she was called to duty. He was pleased to hear she was back.
"That is terrific news," he said. "She had a great attitude about leaving. She is very loyal to her country. We sent her off with hopes she'd be coming back, and I am glad to know she did."
Gossett said her job is waiting for her when she is ready to return.
For now, Kim wants to take some time to catch her breath and visit with family and friends.
An avid photographer, she sat in the living room of her brother's home looking through pictures she shot while in the Middle East.
She smiled at a picture of the dome-shaped pup tent that was her home. It had just enough room to sleep in. The only thing between her and the rocky sand was the lining of her rain poncho.
"It really makes you appreciate the comforts of home," she said.
Luxuries she missed included hot showers, air conditioning, a comfortable bed, soft toilet paper, grass, trees, Bruce Springsteen concerts, golf and sailing.
The Iraqi desert near Baghdad was scorching. Kim remembers reading the thermometer at 142 degrees one day.
"You cook food at those temperatures," she said.
She and her colleagues wore long-sleeved uniforms with boots, helmets and body vests. She packed a 9mm side arm at all times, although she never engaged in combat. When they traveled, the 5-foot-1-inch reservist said she carried her body weight in supplies. When she left, she weighed 128 pounds. She lost 14 pounds in the desert.
She worked as a hospital corpsman first class in a small, mobile medical unit that was placed close to a combat unit. It can be assembled in an hour and a half.
She was on duty all day, every day, treating and surgically stabilizing soldiers and Iraqis before sending them to the next echelon of care.
"We didn't lose any Marines or sailors (Navy personnel)," she said. In September, she was promoted to chief hospital corpsman, a managerial position. The ceremony was held in the hospital tent.
Members of her unit washed their uniforms in laundry buckets "about every seven to 10 days," she said. Their bodies smelled like a mixture of dirt, sweat, and insect repellent.
But Kim said she tried not to focus on the way they lived.
"There were those that were natural complainers and nothing could make them happy," she said. "To me there were other things to be upset about."
She took up running to clear her mind and give her peace.
She was allowed only one morale-building phone call home a week. She used it to call Chris, who kept their mother and other two siblings in New Jersey updated.
Kim said she deliberately didn't bring pictures of her friends and family.
"It's a self-preservation technique," she said. "If you start thinking about home and what you are missing, you'll get depressed. I just focused on my job and what I had to do."
A typical meal was some beef chunks with mushrooms, peanut butter and crackers, and melted M&Ms, she said. Often soldiers would use Tabasco sauce to doctor up the meat.
When soldiers received care packages from home, they would share the treats. Granola bars, Slim Jims, and sunflower seeds were big hits. Baby Wipes were welcome, she said, since field showers were usually lukewarm, short and infrequent.
Although some Iraqis resented the occupation, she said the children seemed friendly and curious.
She remembers teaching a group of Iraqi girls to play baseball.
"They didn't have any idea what the game was, but they were very happy about it," she said.
Women in black burkas worked in fields and dug for salt, while the men sat around at the market and talked and drank tea, she said.
She visited one of Saddam Hussein's palaces in Babylon.
"It was gaudy and representative of somebody who has a lot of money but bad taste," she said.
One day, she said, they went swimming in a pool that was reputed to be the place where Saddam's oldest son, Uday Hussein, would rape women and then toss them in the pool with alligators.
"It was ironic that the symbol of terror had U.S. Marines swimming in it," she said.
As she spoke, she stopped at a picture of an Iraqi interpreter who escorted her to a theatre once.
Her face flushed.
Tears in her eyes, she said, "He thanked us for his freedom."