Cpl. Gwen Sieg returned home afer six months on the front lines in Iraq with the 3rd Infantry Division after fighting her way through the desert and into Baghdad. Proudly waiting her homecoming were her 6-year-old daughter, her mother and three younger brothers and sisters.
The 24-year-old soldier and mother helped spearhead the U.S. offensive during the recent war in Iraq. She served with the 2nd Brigade attached to the 3rd Infantry Division. Her unit led the charge that brought the latest Middle East war to Saddam Hussein and his troops.
From start to finish, her unit was in the middle of some of the toughest fighting. She is a chemical and biological warfare specialist who served in front of the 3rd ID that led the U.S. attack across the desert into Baghdad.
When Sieg wasn’t using sensitive instruments to detect the possible presence of poisonous gas or bad bugs contained in incoming enemy artillery rounds or rockets — she was assigned as top gunner on a Humvee, a Jeep-like vehicle, on a ring-mounted .50-caliber machine gun. Both jobs are deadly dangerous.
The 1997 Port Charlotte, Fla. High School graduate found herself in January at Camp New York, a staging area for U.S. troops in Kuwait. A month later, the 25,000-strong 3rd Division moved out across the desert to get Saddam Hussein dead or alive as President George Bush ordered.
It took 3rd ID soldiers about three weeks to make the 275-mile trip to the capital city located along the Tigris-Euphrates rivers. Along the way, they encountered heavy fighting. Most of the enemy action came at night as they snaked their way in convoy slowly across the desert sands.
“All of a sudden one night there was a lot of incoming enemy artillery,” Sieg recalled. “The sky was all lit up with enemy fire and we were right in the middle of it.
“Everything happened so quickly out there in the desert during the fighting. You only pay attention to what was going on right in front of you.”
They reached the halfway point, between Kuwait and Baghdad, at a rock quarry near Obj Rans. It was the first big enemy attack she was involved in.
“I was sitting in a foxhole with my NCO (Non Commissioned Officer), clutching my M-16 rifle, and I also had a couple of hand grenades. All my monitoring equipment was 100 feet out in front of us. I could see the tiny green light blinking on and off in the dark on one piece of equipment mounted on a tripod,” she said.
Their job was to also guard a road leading in and out of the rock quarry while monitoring for enemy chemical or biological agents.
“Wearing my night-vision goggles, I could see a lot of enemy activity out in front of us in the sand. Since I had never been in a situation like this before, I started questioning in my mind what was going on out there in front of me,” Sieg said. “I was scared, but my sergeant was there with me. Even so, my heart was pounding away.”
Finally, she and her NCO contacted their first sergeant and explained to him what they were looking at on the enemy side of the front line. A reconnaissance squad from the 3rd Division was sent to investigate the enemy’s activities.
“When the sun came up, the recon unit found three dead Iraqi soldiers shot during the night. They also captured a dozen more soldiers and another group of enemy soldiers got away,” she said. “We moved out again at the front of the column heading for Baghdad.
Her unit led the way to Saddam International Airport on the outskirts of Baghdad. They faced little or no resistance as they rolled in with their heavy equipment. Her engineering brigade immediately began blowing up enemy transport airplanes parked along the runway.
“It didn’t start hitting the fan at the airport with the enemy until I was on guard duty about midnight that first night,” Sieg said. “I was on a roof top and we were guarding an intersection from up there, my sergeant and I.
“All of a sudden anything that could be thrown at us by the enemy started coming in. Their tanks were firing at us, artillery, machine guns, mortars, RPGs (rocket propelled grenades), we were getting AK-47 rifle fire, everything was coming our way,” she said. “At first the Iraqis were hitting us real well. They were even firing ground-to-air missiles at our aircraft overhead. Once they ran out of missiles, that’s when our aircraft attacked.
“I’ll never forget the volume of noise I heard that night on the roof at the Baghdad airport. It was right over our heads and it went on four or five hours,” Sieg said. “My heart was pounding so badly even though this was our outgoing fire pounding the enemy.”
When the shooting stopped the next morning, there was little left of Saddam’s troops. It took her unit a week to completely secure the airport and get it back in reasonably good working order for use by U.S. forces.xccc
“The worst part of it all was picking up the dead enemy bodies and burying them. That was kinda hard because after bodies lay out in the sun in 120-degree temperature three or four days, they aren’t in good shape,” she said.
Their next mission was a bit more agreeable. They moved into one of Saddam Hussein’s mansions in downtown Baghdad and set up shop.
“This was a 30-room home with cathedral ceilings and marble everywhere. There was red carpet and gold couches with pink cushions,” she recalled. “This was my home for the remainder of my stay in Baghdad.”
From March 22 until she left Iraq in June, Sieg spent much of her time tooling around the city perched atop a Humvee behind the trigger of the .50 caliber machine gun. It was a prime spot for getting killed.
“I felt safer in the Humvee with my .50 caliber because I knew I was gonna make it home OK,” Sieg said. “Actually, when Iraqis see a woman on a .50-caliber gun, they don’t mess with her.”
The first couple of weeks, she said, Baghdad was like a ghost town. Most of its inhabitants didn’t venture out. When they did, a lot of them carried little white flags to indicate to the Americans they were friendly, she said.
“The two Iraqis I worked with closely over there were good people,” Sieg said. “Although they didn’t understand what the Gulf War was all about, they were happy we were there and Saddam Hussein was gone,” she said.
“But then there were other Iraqis who hated Americans. They didn’t like our soldiers being in their country and they particularly didn’t like our women soldiers,” she said. “You’d get a lot of nasty looks from them and they would have stabbed you in the back with a smile on their face if they had gotten a chance. You had to be careful how you dealt with them all the time.”
Then there were the Iraqi Romeos who wanted to romance young, good-looking, female American soldiers.
“Iraqi guys were telling us all the time they were in love with us and wanted to marry us and come back to America and live,” she laughed. “When the children saw we were females, they were after us for food.”
How does she feel about going to war in Iraq and ending up in Baghdad?
“Originally, I thought we shouldn’t be over there. But after you see everyday life in Iraq and how happy the average Iraqi feels about being free, you realize we’re doing the right thing,” Sieg said. “You see the children getting a chance to go to school, something they probably would have never had, if it hadn’t been for the U.S. No matter what anybody says, I think we did the right thing by going into Iraq.”
Meanwhile, her 6-year-old daughter, Taylor, survived quite nicely while her mom was fighting a desert war in a foreign country thousands of miles away from home. The youngster lived with her father, James Sieg, in Punta Gorda, Fla.] while Mom was at the front taking care of the enemy.
“She knows a lot of stuff about what I do in the Army, but I don’t get into the fighting in Iraq,” Sieg said. “I wrote her every couple of days from the front and told her what was going on with me, kinda.
“I’d tell Taylor, ‘Mommy is busy working. I miss you and I love you. Are you being a good girl? Be good for Daddy. How is school going?'”
Taylor is in the first grade at Sallie Jones Elementary School in Punta Gorda.
“She was waiting for me with a little ‘Welcome Home’ sign,” Sieg said. “I hadn’t seen her in seven months.”
Sieg is about to wrap up three years in the Army. Very soon she will be promoted to sergeant. She will have to decide in the next year if she wants to stay in the Army and reup for two more years or possibly get out and go to college courtesy of Uncle Sam.
“I haven’t decided what I’m going to do,” she said.
Sieg’s mother, Jacqueline Merchant, who lives in Port Charlotte, admits her daughter’s Army career has been a strain on the family.
“When she was over in Iraq, days would go by and I wouldn’t hear from her. It scared me,” she said. “I got a lot of support from all my friends. They assured me she would be OK.”
How does she feel about the possibility that her daughter may make the Army a career?
“I’ve raised a very strong lady. I believe in her decisions. It will be her choice. Gwen is my hero,” Jacqueline said as she sat a few feet away with tears in her eyes, clutching a couple of Kleenex and gazing at her camouflage fatigues-clad daughter in her black military beret.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Aug. 25, 2003 and is republished with permission.
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