Fight like a Woman

Regina Chance knows about war.

Written by Tom Gordon, Portrait by Beau Gustafson

When Regina Chance tells clients she has walked a mile in their boots, she’s not blowing smoke.

Chance is a transition patient advocate at the Birmingham VA Medical Center, working with returning Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. Her job is to make sure those vets have the information they need to take the steps they need to get the services available to them and their families in the VA health care system.

As part of her job, she makes presentations to National Guard and Reserve units, attends the meetings of groups such as those in the Yellow Ribbon program, the purpose of which is to help veterans reintegrate into the family and work lives they knew before they deployed.  When necessary, she also meets with individuals outside of group settings.

“When they return from combat with injuries or an illness, or just need general information about getting integrated into the VA, I can share that information with them and connect them with people in the VA,” Chance says.

If, at first blush, vets view the 40-year-old Pinson resident as someone who cannot relate to them, they quickly learn otherwise. Chance is a 20-year Army Reservist and a sergeant first class. Ten years ago this month, she was among about 40 members of the 813th Replacement Company, an Army Reserve unit based in the west Alabama town of Gordo, who set up shop in Iraq a few weeks after U.S. Marines pulled down a statue of dictator Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square.

For Chance, the job was seven days a week, with work shifts averaging 12 to 15 hours at a sprawling airbase that some U.S. troops dubbed “Mortaritaville” because incoming shells were a regular part of the daily routine. For the first two months, she was working and living without an air conditioner, and that meant dealing with daytime temperatures that hit 130 degrees, or higher.

Except for a  two-week break back in Alabama,  the deployment, and the training time associated with it, kept Chance away from home and her three-year-old  daughter Kayla for more than a year. After she came back, she needed several  months herself to re-adjust.

Chance refers to her experience when she makes presentations to groups. She has talked about it in more detail when the occasion is a more informal, one-on-one chat with a vet about accessing the VA.

Applying lessons they have learned since deployments began in the Iraq and Afghan wars, the Guard and Reserves have been stressing the need for their homeward bound troops to have necessary forms filled out and information on VA resources available to them.  But Chance says many individuals don’t give that a lot of thought as they get ready to head home, and they often put it out of their minds when they get home.

“There’s so much information coming at them, they’re pretty much overwhelmed, and they’re not … half paying attention to it,” Chance said. “They get enrolled in the VA health care (system), and months later, they’re not even aware that they filled out the paperwork to get enrolled in the health care. They’re going through the motions, and so, months later, when  they really need the help, they really feel, ‘I want to reach out to get the help,’ … they just need someone to take ‘em by the hand and go through the steps and the processes that they need.”

And if that someone happens to have been “down range” in Iraq or Afghanistan, all the better.

“Sometimes they want someone who understands where they’ve been before you pass them to someone in the hospital who may not have that experience,” Chance said. “You know, they might can diagnose them and medicate them, but they cannot truly understand their experience … and so sometimes just talking it out (helps).”

Like more than a few of her counterparts who joined the Guard or Reserves in the late ‘80s or early 90s, Chance was looking for some financial assistance for college and the opportunity to “get away from home.” Getting away to where was not a question she could readily answer. She had enlisted while she was a junior at Tuscaloosa’s Central High, and the first Iraq war was over before she had graduated. But in the coming years, U.S. forces would be engaged in places a far piece from Tuscaloosa, and units like Chance’s would be needed to help move them and their stuff in and out, schedule them some R&R, or get them home on emergency leave.

The first duty call for Chance came in 1995-96, when the 813th was called to help manage the coming and going of U.S. troops who were part of the peacekeeping operation in the war-ravaged nation of Bosnia. Bosnia was beset by deep political and ethnic divisions, but for Chance and other U.S. troops, it was tame—and in many ways, more liveable —compared with what they would face eight years later in Iraq.

Asked how conditions were when she began her Iraqi deployment, Chance had a one-word reply: “Harsh.”

Chance and most of her fellow 813th soldiers were based about 50 miles north of Baghdad at Logistics Support Area Anaconda, near the city of Balad and inside a former Iraq air force base of the same name.   Over time, the facility would become like a small city, one of the largest U.S. installations in Iraq. Its amenities would include fast food joints, two swimming pools,  24-hour dining facilities, a movie theater,  trailer showers and air-conditioned working and living quarters.

But on the night in May 2003 when Chance and her fellow soldiers gathered at the air base, they found themselves in what their commander later described as “a dump.” Buildings reduced to rubble. Others with their windows blown out. Wrecked vehicles. Broken glass, no electricity or running water. And heat that wouldn’t quit. For the first few nights, the 813th’s overnight quarters was the wrecked movie theater.  For extra protection in case of an attack, Chance slept close to one of the building’s carpet-covered walls.  The next morning, she was covered with itchy bites. The wall carpets were infested with fleas.

Again, as time passed, conditions would get better. By the time the 813th left, it had gone from having one hot meal a week to being able to have four a day at a state-of-the-art dining facility, from having no bathrooms at all to having toilets in trailers, from having hot-air spewing fans in the reception tents for soldiers replaced by air conditioners.  The unit’s job also had grown bigger and more demanding as the U.S. settled in for a much longer than anticipated occupation. By the time Reservists left in the spring of 2004, their Anaconda operation had processed about 75,000 incoming or outgoing troops.

Like her fellow soldiers, Chance carried her M16 rifle with her wherever she went. She never had to use it because she worked and lived away from the base perimeter, but she had regular reminders of the threat outside the wire, reminders in the form of shells landing somewhere on the base and close enough to be heard, sometimes close enough to be felt. There was even one time when the explosion from one shell rained sand and debris down upon a bus in which Chance was sitting.

Sometimes, too, the folks firing those rockets or mortar rounds would step things up and mount an attack. Chance was at her regular dining hall when one of those attacks occurred, and she remembers watching infantry guys picking up their gear and heading out, and she and other soldiers being told to stand fast.

Chance is a sergeant first class now, and part of a different Army Reserve unit. For a time, she was married to one of the soldiers with whom she deployed to Iraq, but now she is back to being a single mom, and daughter Kayla turned 14 this month. While she has a Bronze Star because of her service in Mortaritaville, she does not feel her place as a soldier will ever be in a front-line combat unit.

The Pentagon has lifted the ban on women serving in such units.  Chance feels those units are better suited to men.

“You know, if I’m in that situation and I have to lock and load, … we’re trained for that,” she said. “But when you’re talking front line, that’s not all there is to it. I can do it if I’m in the situation right now, but infantry is more than just engaging the enemy … It’s more than kicking the door down and returning fire, a lot more.”

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In both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, women have seen  combat, and female names are on the military casualty lists. According to Pentagon figures, 153 female service members have died in the “Global War on Terror.” Nearly 1,000 have been wounded.  The Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs lists 133 individuals with Alabama ties, nearly all in the military, who died on 9/11 or during subsequent deployments. Four are female.

At the end of February, according to the Pentagon, 143,014 U.S. service members were deployed, many of them to places like Afghanistan, South Korea and Germany. Of that, 16,407—11 percent—were female

One Response to “Fight like a Woman”

  1. Deidre Ali says:

    This is an excellent profile article! I can say without a doubt that Sgt. Chance is someone who has always exemplified extraordinary courage, character and love of her country. As her fellow Central High School and Univ. of Alabama (Birmingham) alum, I have had the honor to know Sgt. First Class Chance from a young age and this article typifies what I’ve always known – Chance represents nothing but excellence. It is women like her that illuminate a shining example of strength perfectly balanced with womanhood and compassion that is so rare to see these days and which are qualities of a leader. Way to go Sgt. Chance!!! I am so proud of your accomplishments and service to our country!

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