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Betrayal in the Field

The stench was overpowering, strong enough to make Specialist Jen Spranger recoil as she stepped out of the military plane into the Kuwait night. Was it rotting garbage? Burning oil fields? Dead bodies? She knew only that the air was black with filth and smelled nothing like her hometown of Racine, Wisconsin.


Cramped and exhausted from 18 hours of flying from the U.S., she and the other fresh soldiers filed down the airplane stairs and into a waiting bus. It was February 2003, the month leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and the soldiers were being driven to Camp Arifjan, a huge military base south of Kuwait City, to wait for the war. Spranger, her blond hair tucked under her army beret, huddled her small frame into her seat, wishing she could at least peek outside. But she and her comrades were forbidden to open the curtains even a crack. She felt as if she were being delivered to war blindfolded.


When she reached the camp and climbed off the bus, she was ordered into a long metal warehouse stuffed with roughly 1000 green army cots, almost every one occupied by a man. The building reeked of sweat. There, she was to sleep an arm’s length away from her neighbor on either side, face to foot to minimize the spread of disease. If she needed a bathroom, she would have to weave her way across the room with all those men watching her. She lay down and changed her clothes inside her sleeping bag, feeling a long way from home.


Spranger was 1 of only 4 women in a platoon of 34 men, and 1 of 20 women in a company of 213. She was to live and work in close quarters with those men for the next seven months.

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This essay appeared in the the Spring 2009 issue of Columbia Magazine.

Additional essays by Helen Benedict can be found at featurewell.com When you reach the site, just type "Helen Benedict" in the Advanced Search window. All essays are copyrighted and cannot be reproduced without permission.