CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Sixteen years ago at age 41, Monica Willis, then a member of the Cross Lanes-based Army Reserve’s 261st Ordnance Co., was looking forward to what was to have been a deployment to Iraq.
Instead, she and the other 49 soldiers from her company called to active duty spent five months at Fort Dix, New Jersey.
"I was disappointed," she said. Despite some trepidation, "I wanted a deployment. When you've been in the Army all this time, you feel a little guilty for not having had this experience."
Willis, a Charleston Police officer for 16 years and now a part-time member of the Yeager Airport Police Department, had served in the Army Reserve for 18 years at the time of her 2003 in-country activation. It would take a transition to the West Virginia Army National Guard and another 16 years until her hoped-for overseas deployment took place.
Last June, the Eleanor-based 3664th Ordnance Co. of the West Virginia Army National Guard, in which Willis serves as a staff sergeant, arrived in Kuwait. From there, Willis was assigned individually to a posting at the U.S. Army base at Kobane, Syria. where she served from Dec. 8 until early March.
Following a demobilization stint at Fort Hood, Texas, Willis returned home on March 31, when she appeared at her church, Kingdom Life Fellowship in Nitro to surprise her grandson, Joel Smith.
At the end of the service, Pastor William Roberts summoned Smith to the stage and asked him, among other things, what he would say to his grandmother if he had the chance.
"I'd tell her 'I love you,'" he quietly replied.
Roberts urged Smith to do just that, and had the youth turn around to see his grandmother, in uniform, walking toward him with open arms. The two embraced in an extended hug, and were soon joined by Smith's mother, and Willis' daughter, Leah Smith.
"I missed you all so much," Willis told congregation members. "It's good to be back home."
While in Syria, Wilis was manager of the Army’s dining facility at Kobane, a city near the Turkish border, and the battleground between Kurdish troops and Islamic State fighters through much of 2014. Last fall, Turkish artillery shelled Kurdish positions in the area around Kobane, prompting fear of a possible invasion.
“We were working under the threat of Turkey bombing the place,” said Willis. “Turkey wanted to take that land over.”
Willis and her six-soldier food service crew prepared and served three hot meals daily, at one time serving up to 1,000 people in a day.
Willis said she personally baked desserts like pineapple upside-down cake and peach cobbler to help boost morale, if not waistlines. "I wanted to bring a little sunshine to the troops," she said.
“We served many troops, Marines and civilian contractors,” she said. “I personally served Gen. (Joseph) Votel (head of the U.S. Central Command), Ambassador (James) Jeffrey and several top-ranking military officials when they came through for some high-level security meetings. Gen. Votel asked me about my service. And a lot of people asked me about my West Virginia accent.”
One of the highlights of her deployment, she said, was visiting three Syrian villages, accompanied by Special Forces troops, to play with local children and help an Air Force group pass out warm clothing.
"I traveled in full battle-rattle," she said, and was the only soldier with a noncombat posting to travel outside the base perimeter. "I got a chance to see how the people in the area lived," she said. "It taught me not to be so whiny about the things that aren't perfect in my own life."
The various military units Willis served at Kobane gave her patches and commemorative coins as symbols of their gratitude. "The Kurds even made me a mug with my name on it," she said.
"It's amazing all I got to do and see at age 57," Willis said. "Thirty-four years of service and my first deployment! I tried my best to represent the National Guard and the state of West Virginia. I hope I can encourage others to conquer their fears."
The experience left her wanting to make at least one more deployment before she retires from the Guard.
"Another deployment is happening this fall," she said. "I hope to go on that one, too."
Information from: The Charleston Gazette-Mail