Strong Enough

I met Lisa Zepeda at an event put on by the Chicago chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW). She had just spoken about the experiences that led her from the Army Reserves to the peace movement and I approached her, curious about the Arabic name on her uniform. "I had somebody stitch it on for me," she said. "A bit of camaraderie to put my name in Arabic."


Zepeda joined the Reserves in 1983, wanting to get out of Chicago, to "have adventures." She served on medical humanitarian missions to Guatemala and Paraguay. She was called up for the Gulf War and just as her contract was set to run out, she was called up again, this time for the war in Iraq. Working as a nurse, she spent a year in Kuwait, then finished her deployment at the now infamous prison, Abu Ghraib. It was at Abu Ghraib, especially, that she began to question the war.

Zepeda displays the poise and assurance of a woman who has been places and seen things, made up her mind about them, and who is willing to stand up for what she believes—not only in a war zone, but at home. "I’m not intimidated by anybody," she says. "I’m going to keep speaking the truth. I have nothing to lose."

Many of the more difficult moments during our conversation—when Zepeda spoke of witnessing abuse, gross injury, death, and isolation—were punctuated by a small laugh, an attempt it seems to recall some of the everyday humor that exists alongside the everyday tragedies she has witnessed. Laughter—this gallows humor—is a survival trait for Lisa Zepeda, a Chicago police officer, nurse, mother, Army Reservist, veteran. What follows is Lisa Zepeda telling her story in her own words.

* * *

I had three weeks left on my contract and I was done. Then the order came through for my unit that everybody who was going to be getting out within the month was stop-lossed. They added two more years onto my contract—active duty two years. I had 72 hours to get ready and ship out. I told work, turned in my badge, and got my power of attorney, my will, got all that put together. Had a party, kissed my son good-bye. It was hard.

That’s how they treat the Reserves. We were the stepchildren. They told us, "You’ll be there six months." But they don’t have to hold you to that contract. Active duty, they do—they say six months, it’s six months. But the Reserves, I think they write everything in pencil because six months turns into nine months. Nine months turns into twelve months. And they just kept adding three or four months. That’s what kept me in the war.

Abu Ghraib—I was there from April through June 2004. Right before the story broke, that’s when I got there. It had a reputation as a pretty wild camp and a pretty dangerous camp because of its location in the Sunni triangle. Right across the street was farmland with real high grass and guys would hide in the fields and shoot mortars across the street into the camp. Marines manned the watchtowers and they would shoot mortars back, so we heard mortars all the time. From what I heard, nobody was checking up on the place. Whoever was supposed to wasn’t doing it and it was kind of a free for all.

I was part of a surgical team. I worked in the laboratory, did the blood bank, made up transfusions for surgery. I did all the drug testing down there—it was a small department. Our side job was assisting the doctors and nurses. When the helicopters landed, we had to bring the wounded into the hospital, you know, like in "M*A*S*H," you see them carrying the gurney. That’s what we did.

* * *

I didn’t get the joke. I was in the mess hall when it broke. Everybody ate there. It was a big common mess hall for anybody that worked there, the civilians, contractors, and the military people. The interrogators were all there. Anyway, we had a big TV. They had "60 Minutes" on and they started talking about the scandal at Abu Ghraib. Then they started showing the pictures and the whole dining hall broke out in laughter. I’m watching this and I’m like, "This is sick. What’s so funny?" I didn’t get it.

People bring it up and think they’re being cute. I’ve heard the joke so many times, "Oh, was it you, Lisa?" That hurts when people say that. It’s not funny. I was angry that this is what we’re doing to people. I knew that a high percentage of people in that prison were innocent. That was a known fact. Anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of the people there did not know anything. They’d just been at the wrong place at the wrong time. And we’re doing this to them.

If you didn’t like your neighbor, you’d go tell the Marines, "Hey, I think this guy is moving guns around" or something. Then they arrest you. Even if they’re looking for one guy, all the men in the house get rounded up. They hold you for four or five months—then they release you. You could be miles away and they dump you in the next town. You can’t figure out how you’re going to get home. You create a lot of very angry people. Families would come out in front of the camp and protest. Then, after the protesters would leave, the mortar attacks would start. That was regular. Where’s the freedom? I tell people, I say, "Look at what we’re doing to them. Can you imagine that happening in Chicago? Some other country coming in here and rounding up the men?" I can’t understand that, and that’s what we did. It is not okay. I get a lot of people coming up to me and they thank me for my [military] service, for making us free. They don’t understand it. I don’t think we made anybody free. I think we created more enemies.

I never asked anybody else what they thought about it. I felt like I was isolated. That was the turning point. I started reading anything I could get my hands on about the war, started questioning. I was watching Born on the Fourth of July and I think that affected me, too. A lot of things said in that movie could have applied to the Iraq War. These are simple people, simple farmers just trying to make a modest living for themselves and look what we did. Look what we did to that country. I started getting vocal, talking about how wrong the war was. I didn’t care. I knew once I got out of the there I was getting out of the Army so I spoke up. I know it’s hard for a lot of people. A lot of officers that are still in the service thank me for speaking up because they can’t.

* * *

Kids are signing up for the war and they don’t know where it’s at. They don’t know who the players are. But I’ll tell you, we didn’t know either. When I went, they did a poor job explaining the region to us. I wasn’t educated on the politics. I wasn’t educated on the weapons of mass destruction. A lot of us didn’t know what was happening. Now there are so many books, you can pick up a book and read the truth. Back then there were no books. I grabbed an Esquire in Baghdad and read an article about how we got involved in the war, who we got the intel from—which was Wolfowitz—and all these other people that we got bad intel from and how they just went with the story. The CIA kept saying, "It’s not there. It’s not proven." And they kept sending the report back, "This doesn’t follow the program. Rewrite this report."

Now that the truth is out, I look back and it’s like, "Man, they took advantage of us. They took advantage of our patriotism." That’s how I see it. We questioned, too, why are we pulling guard duty for civilian companies? Anytime we went on a convoy the civilian vehicles would go along with us because they could only go where they could get security. The civilians were everywhere. They were in the same camps with us. They were the cooks. They were the laundry. They were the engineers. It was a joke among the military engineers—they were being told to drive trucks and pull guard duty and they were saying, "The only thing I built out here was a picnic bench for the soldiers." When I saw that there were just as many contractors out there as us, you know, why did we need them? I was watching Iraq for Sale, a documentary, and they were talking about how all these major players at the Pentagon had investments and all these other big players at the Pentagon, they all had investments in those contractors down there.

* * *

They never listen to us. Bush never listened to us. They did whatever they wanted. Remember that statement that Rumsfeld made? A specialist was complaining about how their vehicles weren’t armored, and Rumsfeld made the comment, "You don’t go to war with what you want. You go to war with what you get," or something like that. I was like, god, how insulting. He just told every soldier that we don’t care about their safety. That’s how I heard it.

There are so many injustices in the world. I don’t think people know what to do. It’s so overwhelming. I think I notice it more now when people are being wronged. Take our own city government and all the spending they do and all the money they take. The misappropriation with my pension fund—you know what I’m talking about. How do you fight that? You’re just one person.

But you know what? I’m going to keep speaking. I don’t see anything wrong with it and I have nothing to lose—as long as you’re not shoving your ideas down their throat. But some people, when we try to speak the truth, they can’t handle it. When you tell them things that you saw, it’s like, "I’m not making this stuff up." They can’t handle it.

I keep my conversations short with people who have never been to war. It’s hard to have a conversation with them. They have their own opinions about it. One of my ex-partners [on the police force] thinks we needed to be there, so we can keep the terrorists over there and not coming over here. I would tell him about what I saw and I would tell him that now I belong to the peace movement. That shocked him. To him that was like treason. "You’re a communist. How can you do that?" And he was serious. So I stopped talking to him about the war. It’s too upsetting to me. We kept it strictly to work. Some people don’t want to hear the truth. I remember, I can’t think of that lady’s name, her son was killed in Iraq. I went to see her speak. Right next to us was a group of people standing up, trying to shout her down, and turning their backs on her. Some of the comments were thrown at me because I was against the war. They were saying, "You shouldn’t complain. That’s what you signed up for."

I’ve had people give me the finger, throw things. Swear at me. Being a police officer, I went from a war zone to trying to transition to an urban war zone. I work in a very high crime neighborhood. I went into therapy for six months just to make sure I’d be okay working on the streets. Now I’m okay, though sometimes it still bothers me. This past week, we had a shooting with three boys. I was there. I was there when the 13-year-old boy died. I took the mother to the hospital. I didn’t tell her that he had passed—let the doctor tell her. Something like that triggers your memories, does bring up the war, because of the senselessness of it. And you know that’s my job. It’s not like I can give up my job.

A lot of people don’t want to get help. When I came back, they sent all of the returning soldiers to the police academy to get retrained because we’d been off the job so long. Then they told us, "All right, you guys need to go see a shrink before you go back on the street." Of course the guys are like, "Shrink?! I’m not going to see a shrink. I’m not crazy." So none of them went or if they did go, they told the counselor they were fine and then never went back. I tried to talk to a couple of officers and they just kind of cut me off. They didn’t want to talk about it.

I saw a lot of anger in them and that doesn’t go away if you ignore it. I talked to a lieutenant in the department who was in charge of crisis intervention training, teaching officers how to deal with the mentally ill. Now they’re going to do an advanced program on how to deal with anybody who has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder because of the high number of suicides. And I keep telling him, you need to do something instead of just telling officers, "Go see a shrink." You need to transition these officers better, because you’re putting them back out on the street. You know?

* * *

With IVAW, we’re starting to do more volunteer work, talking to high schools, talking to them about recruiters, because recruiters are sharks. Part of my job is patrolling the high schools. I see them there and ask them, "What is your background? Have you been in Iraq?" They’ll tell you, "No, I’ve never been there."

"Well, then how can you send kids there, if you’ve never been there?"

They tell the girls—I’ve heard this a couple of times—"You’re a girl, you’re not gonna go." Or, "You’ll probably be in some office somewhere." And I don’t think that’s true. You can’t make that claim. The front is everywhere. They really hit the minority schools hard. I was talking to somebody about the song, "Fortunate Son," about how true it is, seeing as how there are so many minorities in the war—in that war, too. Somebody asked me, "What do you think about the draft?" I said, "Well, if we had the draft we wouldn’t be in the war so long. People would question it harder."

I think as a kid when people tell you stories, it’s so glorified. Growing up, hearing all my uncles’ stories, I don’t know why we fantasize about that stuff, but you know, they don’t tell you the bad parts about war. They don’t tell you about their buddies getting killed, seeing things blown up. They don’t tell you that stuff. They just tell you about the places they saw, the soldiers they met. I had an uncle in Vietnam. He was a nice man, probably 20 or 21. I remember him coming home. He had a heroin problem and he died of an overdose. That’s all I remember.

I even stopped telling my son police stories because he’s like, "Ma, this stuff is just too heavy for me to handle." I don’t think he wants to know that his mom had a gun pointed at her or his mom had to fight with somebody. So I stopped telling him those stories. When I tell my story to kids, you never tell them the bad stuff. But, I’ll tell you what, if I see a kid signing up for the war, I will tell him those stories. Just so they know what they’re getting into.

* * *

I was with my unit in Kuwait for a year. We were treating soldiers, and contractors, and embassy employees. Our time was up and they were like, "Okay, pack your bags." Then they called the formation and said, "We’ve got to break the bad news. We have new orders. You’re not going home." Even our commander cried. He’d lost his practice. He’d been away for so long that he’d have to start all over again. A lot of marriages break up because of the separation and the stress and the hardship. A lot of people have young kids at home and you miss your kids. Some people had babies when they left. You want to go home. You want to be home. One guy in my unit was home on leave and decided he wasn’t going to come back. He was going to drive to Canada. His wife talked him out of it. I’m sure he didn’t want to get in trouble.

Probably my worst day over there happened my first week at Abu Ghraib. We came under attack. I heard from an officer that there was a very important person in custody and they wanted him dead. So they were dropping mortars on the camp to make sure that one caught him. There were so many wounded. We were bringing the bodies in—there had to be more than 80 people. We were bringing them in so fast and getting them out. They were all prisoners. At Abu Ghraib, that’s all we treated, just the prisoners.         We saw a lot of people die. I used to be a nurse before I was a police officer. As a nurse, I saw people die of disease. I never saw anybody die of being blown apart. That’s shocking. I’d never seen injuries like that. I’d never seen devastating injuries like those amputations, people in full blown shock, chests open. Disembowelment. I’d never seen anything like that. I used to love horror movies. The grosser, the better. But I saw that in real life. It’s horrific. It’s not entertaining. It’s not entertainment. I think if you have a happy life and you play sports and you hang out with your friends, then you can handle that.

* * *

We talked about why we were at the prison. Tried to rationalize it—"God thought I was strong enough" to handle it. I asked my commanding officer, "Why did you send me there? Why didn’t I go to Baghdad or one of the other camps?"

"Well, you have law enforcement experience. We thought you’d be good there."

I’m like, "Gee, thanks."

One of the nurses said, "Maybe we’re here to right a wrong, to help these people. We’re keeping them alive, giving them the best." I never saw anybody give bad care because they were Iraqis. They got excellent care. The nurses and doctors, they treated them as if they were treating Americans. They held their hands when they needed it, stayed with them when they were dying. That’s all you could do.

This country demonizes the Arab people. They’re not evil like people want to believe. I made a lot of friends down there. We worked at the military hospital alongside Kuwaitis. Most of them spoke English. They’d invite me down for tea, so I’d go in the room with the ladies and have tea. That’s where they would unveil, always behind closed doors. If a man came by the door, they’d all throw their veils back on. Very beautiful women. And good-hearted, always willing to share things. One even said, "Oh, a mother shouldn’t be separated from her son. Why don’t you bring him to Kuwait and he can live with us, so you can see him." It was a nice gesture. I respect them. That’s their life. That’s their religion. The women were fascinated by American women, our lifestyle. One girl was fascinated by the traveling I’ve done. She’s like, "I’ve always wanted to travel, but I can’t because I can’t travel without a male escort. So I don’t go anywhere." She’s unmarried, so it has to be a father or an older brother. And they were fascinated by my police work—the men, too. I even got invited to have tea with the men, which is, you know, women don’t sit with the men. But they invited me because they wanted to hear police stories. They were nice people. It’s a very different world that we don’t understand. That’s another thing that bothered me. How do we go over there, bringing democracy, our lifestyle—how do you put that on people? How do you do that to them? They’re not us. We shouldn’t try to make anybody like us.

* * *

You get close to people. You’re each others’ family, each others’ comfort. There’s no entertainment down there. I slept a lot, just to get through the day. Because of the heat. Worked out, read a lot. I remember one guy down there loved to dance. Wasn’t very good at his job, but he loved to dance, so he started salsa classes. It was fun. We got the Spanish coalition soldiers involved and that was even funnier. They were like, "We don’t dance salsa." Never made it across the Atlantic, I guess. So they were learning. They came and joined us, and we danced.

We saw everybody down there, British soldiers, Australians, the Scottish—they came in their kilts, their big fuzzy hats. We saw Koreans, Japanese. It was kind of cool. We made friends with the Italians. Some of them were just passing through, but the Spanish, the Italians, and the British soldiers, we all lived together in the same camp. That was in Kuwait. When I was at Abu Ghraib, it was strictly Americans. You’re on lockdown. You’re in your camp. You can’t go anywhere. No alcohol. There aren’t a lot of outlets.

I don’t think people know what the living conditions were for us. They put the prisoners in tents, cleaned out a few of the cell blocks, and the soldiers are living in prison cells—because there was nowhere to put us. So you have one man cells, two man cells, six man cells—living like animals down there. I think that has got to add to the insanity.

You know what your outlet is, I mean, my god, I know at the prison on Fridays we’d have Fight Night. They had a boxing ring set up. Anybody could get up there and just box. It was the only thing we had to look forward to. There is prostitution down there from what I heard—didn’t see it. When we’d do clinics, we’d have a lot of guys coming in, getting tested for sexually transmitted diseases. They were saying that the prostitutes were either older women or very young girls. Women don’t work. The men are the breadwinners of the family, so when you do a sweep of the town, or the neighborhood, and you lock up the men, the women have to fend for themselves. That bothered me.

* * *

You’ve got a job to do down there. You turn that logic part of your brain off. If you stopped and thought about it, you’d be upset. You can’t. People need you. If you fall apart, you’re no good to the people you’re helping. We’re all part of a team. It’s the same thing when I’m on this police job and I go to a shots-fired call and the gunman’s in the area. If you think about it, you’d run the other way. You can’t think about it. You’ve got a job to do and you do it. Once you’re out of that environment, okay, now that part of your brain that keeps you safe in the war is turned off, that logic part of your brain comes on, and you’re thinking about it, and you’re like, "I came back alive." I could have died. One of those mortars could have hit us. Right before I got there, within that month, two mortars landed on the hospital. That’s how close they were. Now I’m in a safe environment and I can actually sit back and think about what happened.

When I got pulled out of Abu Ghraib, it was like in "M*A*S*H." Somebody came running in to tell me, "Hey Lisa, your orders came in." I went and packed up, gave away all my stuff—I wasn’t taking any of it. Everyone came running, grabbed my bedding, my bed, my mattress. They cleaned out my room. Somebody printed up a pardon from Abu Ghraib prison. It was kind of funny. So we’re outside waiting for the vehicle to come, me and three other guys, and then all of the sudden I hear mortars. You’re not supposed to be on the road when there are mortars. I hear mortars and I’m like, "I don’t care. I don’t care. I just want to get out of here" The truck came and we got out. Went to Baghdad, got on our flight, went back to Kuwait for a couple of weeks, and then came home July 2.

I don’t think it started to affect me until I got home. I couldn’t be happy. I think that’s what a lot of people feel when they first come home. My sister invited me to a candle party—you know, come meet the ladies and we’ll have a party. I didn’t want to be there. The women, they’re all just going about their business and they’re talking about the candles and I’m thinking to myself, "What’s wrong with you people? There’s a war going on." It was rough coming home and then the 4th of July was the same week. I stayed in my room. I didn’t come out. Fireworks sound like mortars. There’s a scene in Born on the Fourth of July, the soldier is flinching—you do that. Those cherry bombs, whatever they sounded like mortars. I was having a lot of nightmares, too. Mortars landing on my house. Iraqi soldiers coming into my house, taking my son. Those are the kinds of dreams you have.

You get in that war mode and you never snap out of it. I think you have a lot of lost young people out there now, depressed, homeless, people just not comfortable being at home. You have a lot of drug and alcohol abuse. Or they sign up again and go back. Sign up for a contractor job. I’ve even thought about it myself. I could be over there making $100,000 easy. But you forget the risks. They’re always talking about the number of soldiers getting shot, the number of soldiers killed. You never know what the numbers are for the contractors. We saw them, too, just as much as we saw the soldiers.

* * *

I’ve been home since 2004. I couldn’t talk about the war for the first couple of years. My dad was part of the anti-war group on the South Side. He always invited me, "C’mon Lisa, c’mon and stand with us."

"I can’t, Dad. I can’t do it."

Last year I started to speak up about it. I think time started healing. Sometimes I can talk about it and sometimes I get upset. I never know. So many stories just swirling in your head. Your mind only let’s you talk about what’s safe. It shuts down when it gets to be too much. My son was 13 when I left. I don’t think he understood it. I would say he’s anti-war, but for a while he wanted to join the Marines, because the Marines, they’re "cool." There was no way he was joining the Marines. No way. He made the remark, "Well, if I’m 18, I don’t need your permission."

"No, you don’t need my permission, but you know I come from a family of veterans. We don’t need any more veterans. It ends here. You don’t need to experience that. I experienced it for the both of us."

I take that with me when I’m on the street and I talk to people. I try to calm them down, especially when it’s a domestic disturbance. I treasure my family. I treasure my son. When you see these people go into their homes and they don’t like each other and they’re fighting over the silliest things. How would they feel if they lost that loved one? People don’t think about that. I told my son, "Go and have a nice life. Live a life of peace." Instead of seeing human beings at their worst. Do volunteer work with the poor. Join the Peace Corps. Be a productive human being. If you just help somebody, then that’s enough, you know.

I was a witness to war. That’s just how my life played out. I think by speaking up about it, we can prevent wars. Let’s prevent wars. Let’s prevent doing something like this ever again.


Craig Reinbold is a freelance writer from Chicago. His fiction has appeared in Vital Source Magazineand the Ampersand Review. He is currently compiling a book of interviews with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.