Home for the new year: Shoppette employee returns with memories of Iraq

Crystal Toenjes - Staff Writer
Tinker Takeoff
(Courtesy of the Exchange's Tinker AFB PAR Lina Johnson)
January 9, 2005

A Tinker Army & Air Force Exchange Service employee volunteered to deploy to Iraq for much of the past two years knowing she would miss birthdays, holidays and many other special and everyday events. But looking back, she has absolutely no regrets.

"You think you know who are and then get in that situation over there really find out what you're made of," said Tina Nelson-Gardner, a shift supervisor at the Army & Air Force Exchange Service Shoppette near bowling center.

"It definitely gives you a whole new perspective on what is really important," she said.

Ms. Nelson-Gardner has worked for the Exchange for six years, one year in Germany and the past five years at Tinker.

The daughter of a Soldier and wife of a retired Airman, she is no stranger to the demands and advantages of military life. So when was offered the chance to deploy for first time in October 2003, she couldn't pass it up.

"Growing up as a military kid you hear stuff from your dad, grow up with it and so when get the chance to go...it's like 'let's go; let's see what it's about,'" she said.

She was deployed to Bagdad International Airport where worked in the container yard of the main distribution center for Iraq and was responsible for running the warehouse.

"It was good. I got to work with a lot of equipment over there," Ms. Nelson-Gardner said. "I drove the forklift a lot, unloaded containers and trucks, moved stuff around, packed and repacked general Exchange supplies, helping to move our products to the various sites in Iraq and loading up the convoys."

She returned to Tinker in April 2004, just in time to see her oldest son, Douglas, graduate from boot camp and then her second eldest, Marcus, from high school. She also has a daughter, Scarlet Rose, who is in the sixth grade.

"As soon as I saw that they got all settled in, then mom went back over," she said, describing her second deployment to Iraq from August 2004 until October 2005.

"The kids are pretty used to it, with dad being in the military. They understood it was mom's turn go," she said. "One thing I get asked often is what does my family think. What does anybody's think? They worry and they're scared for them."

"There's no difference between me going over there and a military member going over. We have the same risks, except they can carry weapons, I can't," she said. "But you just go; do what got to do."

...it hit me that he was about same age as my son. I thought 'that's someone else's baby'...They had leave their mamas at home, but they've been
sent this one instead.

She said like any job, there are good days and bad days. Being away from family during holidays was difficult, but she recognized that her small sacrifice could help make the sacrifices of others a little easier.

"I was there maybe a week when I went in the chow hall and saw young man, it hit me that he was about same age as my son. I thought 'that's someone else's baby,'" she said. "So I'm going to be here for these troops. They had leave their mamas at home, but they've been sent this one instead.

"When you see that Soldier with chocolate candy bar and he's so happy because he hasn't had one for six months - its little things like make it worth while."

She admitted there were some scary moments, like when three suicide bombers made it inside the green zone where she was working.

"It was the scariest thing I've ever been through, but when I saw the troops around me and their training kicking in, it had a calming effect. It was awesome to see these young people just do what they are trained to do," she said.

While she is very happy to be home, there are a few things she's had to get used to again.

She is getting used to traffic lights that work and the orderly flow on streets.

"I had to learn how cook again; we keep baking soda by the stove," she said laughing. "And I gave myself a second degree burn with a curling iron because hadn't used one in two years."

Ms. Nelson-Gardner has no plans to return Iraq or deploy to any other location in the near future, but she is still very open to the idea some time in the future.

"I'd go back again in a minute," she said. "But I think I'll wait and get the sand out of my boots for awhile."

Experiences Downrange

These stories represent a sampling of the more than 4,500 deployees and their experiences downrange. If you are a deployee and would like to add your deployment history, please contact us.

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