We talked to Sargent Megan Payton, a firefighter in the Army who served a one-year tour in Iraq at Joint Base Balad beginning November 2008.
As a firefighter, did you have to go through basic training?
I went through a regular basic training just like every army person. Then I went AIT (Advanced Individual Training) in Texas. That’s with every branch of service in the military. Everyone has to do the same thing. Females have to do everything guys do in the same amount of time. It’s pretty tough.
How did you find being a woman in the armed forces?
You’re always going to have problems as a female. It’s instinct for guys to want to take care of a girl. They don’t want to see you hurt. But in my experience, I loved it. Most of the people I worked with never gave me problems.
Did you feel you were in danger when you were in Iraq?
We got attacked at our base. They sent mortars at us on a daily basis. But that’s what your training is for. If you can trust the person to your left and right and feel confident in your training, you are scared but it’s only because they’re going to do something tricky outside the base. The army is always coming up with stuff to prevent soldier mortality.
What did you enjoy most about being in Iraq/ the army?
We covered a lot of medical calls. We had wounded Iraqi civilians, children, and you just get to see a whole new world out there. People take for granted the smallest things. There were injured females, and only I could treat them. Guys couldn’t. It was a whole new culture shock. I liked playing with the kids and showing them that we’re not there to hurt them, we’re actually there to help them.
How much time were you on duty?
In the fire department, we worked 24 hours on, 24 hours off. But in off time we still had to be in uniform, carry our weapons. And when I wasn’t on duty at the firehouse I was in the Rapid Air Mobility squadron. So if we had a Humvee that flipped over outside the base and people were trapped, we’d help. We were always on standby. We were off but we were never really off.
What should civilians know about the military?
The military is a great experience. It lets you travel to places you’d never travel to otherwise. It pays for your education. It helps you become a leader even if you were the most scared and shy person. The army brings out that leadership. They give you a skill and you can take it and run with it.
How did your service affect your family?
I just told my mom not to watch the news, not to listen to what everyone was saying. The media is always looking for the bad things that happen. We were communicating so she knew pretty much where I was and what I was doing.
What would you say to young people who want to support veterans?
A good way to help support any military organization is to go to a local USO or recruiting station. Care packages are a good thing, too. Anytime anyone gets mail it helps them, it’s a morale booster.
Did you receive care packages?
We received a lot of care packages from a lot of people through the military. Once, these waitresses at an Applebee’s got together and sent out gift cards. We also got thank you letters, beef jerky, and pillows. Some people sent quilts.
What can teens do who are trying to help soldiers acclimate after returning from a tour?
They just want to be listened to; they just want you to hear their story. They’re scared to say they have a problem. When I was a teen, and I saw a vet, I was just like, oh yeah that guy’s old and crazy. If you just listen to their story you really help.
What was it like for you when you came back from Iraq?
It took a little bit to adjust. I saw some really ugly things over there. We had a helicopter crash. So when I look at helicopters I still can’t really be around them. I don’t like to look at them it brings back bad memories. Talking about it to people who were there and talking to my family really helped.