Where I Found My Strength in Baghdad

May 13, 2015

In anticipation of Armed Services Day on May 16, 2015, the staff at iAt have asked those who have served or who are currently serving in the military to share their stories with our readers. This week we will feature five different people who have all served at different times and in different conflicts. Our hope is that it would bring awareness to our readers, but would also point God out in the midst of serving others in this unique way. Today we feature the story of Holly Sammons, who served in Iraq.

Please give a brief description of what you did in the military. Where did you serve? How long? What do you do?

I served a six-year enlistment in the MN Army National Guard. I joined shortly after my 17th birthday in January 2000. I attended Basic Training at Ft. Jackson, SC in 2000 and Advanced Technical Training at Ft. Gordon, GA, in 2001.

In February 2004, my unit received mobilization orders and deployed a few weeks later. Our stateside train-up took us to Fort Benning GA; Fort Hood, TX; Redstone Arsenal, Huntsville, AL; and Fort Irwin, CA. After spending nearly 8 months training stateside, we also spent almost 12 months in theater overseas. We arrived “Boots on Ground” in Kuwait in October 2004 and spent a month waiting for all of our gear and equipment to arrive, acclimating to the heat, and training for our convoy north to Baghdad, Iraq.

Our convoy to Baghdad took four days. We crossed the Euphrates River and eventually arrived at Camp Liberty, which is situated next to Baghdad International Airport. It was a well-established base. I spent the majority of my deployment at this base.

Photo: Holly Sammons. "Abu Gahraib MEDCAP."

Photo: Holly Sammons. “Abu Gahraib MEDCAP.”

My military MOS was 31R- Multichannel Transmission Systems Operator and Maintainer, but I served in a very different capacity on our deployment. Our company was tasked with a special aerial surveillance operation and my squad was sent to specialized JLENS training at Redstone Arsenal. JLENS, which is short for Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, is an aerostat system, or tethered airship similar to a Goodyear blimp. The helium filled aerostats are equipped with high-tech cameras that serve as the “eye in the sky”. My job was to control the camera from a secure area and scan our battle space for potential threats. We scanned gates, checkpoints, and roof tops. We followed convoys, combat patrols, and raids. We reacted to a number of explosions, called in grid coordinates to higher headquarters, sent out the quick reaction force, and monitored the situation to look for a trigger man. We searched for terrorists planting roadside bombs during the night. We also replayed videos to collect intel on suspicious vehicles.

In addition to the camera on the aerostat, we also serviced a number of cameras that were on towers in the city of Baghdad. The towers took us outside of the gates of our base and into the streets of Baghdad. My first trip ‘outside the wire’ was to Camp Falcon on the east side of Baghdad (on my 22nd birthday!). I also spent a number of weeks at the Al Rasheed Hotel in the Green Zone, also known as the International Zone, in the heart of Baghdad.

Photo: Holly Sammons. "Saddams Palace"

Photo: Holly Sammons. “Saddams Palace”

Near the middle of my deployment, we deployed a second Aerostat to the northern city of Mosul to combat the spike in insurgent activity in the area. I took my first C-130 flight and spent a few weeks establishing operations at FOB Marez in Mosul. I finished up the remaining months of my deployment back at Camp Liberty in Baghdad and finally returned home in September 2005. After nearly 20 months, we finally made it back home.
My six-year enlistment was fulfilled 3 months after returning home.

What has given you the greatest joy in serving? What has been the hardest part?

The greatest joy in serving has been doing things that I never imagined I would be capable of doing. I was able to endure and overcome many situations that I would have never chosen, and it has made me a stronger person. That strength only comes from God. It felt very honorable to be a part of something bigger than myself and to serve others. There is a sense of pride and camaraderie in the military that is unlike anything else I have ever experienced.

The hardest part, hands down, was the long length of time we were gone. It was incredibly hard to maintain healthy communication and strong relationships for that length of time, especially when you are literally worlds apart and in very different circumstances. Even though we were constantly surrounded by people, it was very lonely. Goodbyes were very hard. Everyone else’s life moved on and my life was put on hold. Everything changed.Twenty months was a long time to be removed from society and relationships and life. Everything was different. It was hard to not become callused and bitter and full of resentment.

What is one thing you’d like non-military people to know about serving in the military?

Photo: Holly Sammons. "Leaving Hastings."

Photo: Holly Sammons. “Leaving Hastings.”

Making sacrifices are very hard. It’s all about perspective, and serving in the military has made me very thankful for the small things in life. You probably don’t realize the value of your freedoms until they are gone.

I found it ironic that the group of people fighting for freedom is also the same group that does not get to experience those same freedoms. We did not get to wear civilian clothes on a daily basis. We did not get weekend passes. We didn’t have the freedom to do ‘normal’ things. We were told when to eat, sleep and work. Our feeling, emotions, and opinions didn’t always matter. I didn’t get to go home for my brother’s wedding. Others didn’t get to see their children birthdays. These things are all part of the deal when you enlist, but until you have to make sacrifices you never know how truly blessed we are to live our comfortable lives in freedom. Somebody, somewhere is making sacrifices, so if you don’t have to, it is because someone else is answering that call. Be thankful.

Our deployment became a matter of life and death on some days, blurred with many monotonous routines and boredom. All of this made me realize what is important in life and what is frivolous. And it really made me appreciate the small things in life that we so often take for granted.

How have you experienced God’s presence while serving?
The days leading up to our convoy to Baghdad I pondered the possibilities of coming into direct enemy contact in a war zone. Was I properly equipped? Would I know what to do? What if we hit a roadside bomb? Would I be able to save the life of a comrade? What if I became a POW? What if I died? I replayed the scenarios endlessly in my mind. As the days drew closer, I continued to read scripture and poured out my fears to God through prayer.

My definition of “home “changed before the convoy to Baghdad. I so desperately wanted to come to my earthly home but was at peace if God chose me to go to my eternal home. “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Either way, I knew I would be okay. That was true peace for me. I found an indescribable peace, knowing full well that God held me in the palm of his hand. I was not scared and God completely calmed my fears- I did not have a fear of the convoy and I did not have a fear of death. It was truly and indescribable feeling that I know came directly from God.

There are many other experiences that, upon reflection, I can clearly see the presence of God. He surrounded me with a great cloud of witnesses to walk alongside me on that journey. God gave me the strength to be courageous in the face of adversity. He protected me in times of danger. God revealed his majesty among poverty. He gave me a peace that surpassed all understanding. He shielded me from enemy fire. The Great Protector kept me safe among thousands of international male soldiers in a crazy hotel in the heart of Baghdad. The God of peace gave me rest in the middle of a chaotic war zone. He heard every single prayer from the prayer warriors that prayed me through. When I was weak the Lord was strong. The Good Shepherd carried my dear mother, and he held me when I was all alone. Jesus made me feel completely loved. My Savior brought me home.

Dig Deeper

Return to iAt tomorrow to read the story of Michael and Jessica Kiss. Throughout this week, we will share other stories of men and women who have served in the military.

About the Author
  • Sergeant (SGT) Holly Sammons, E-5, was honorably discharged after six years of serving in the MN National Guard. Holly went on to earn her MBA and now works as the Economic Development Director for the City of Luverne. By far, the biggest blessing in her life was becoming a mom to three beautiful children. Holly and her husband, Derek, now live on an acreage near Luverne, MN with their children Ella (7), Max (5), and Addison (2).

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  1. Holly Sammons, thank you for your service to our nation and your sacrifice for the cause of freedom.

  2. Holly, your article is a sermon in itself and a testimony of God’s providence that the next generations need to hear. If you haven’t already, I hope that you can present to school kids in the area. Thank you for your special service for freedom for our nation and around the world.