Making an Impact for Vets
Spring 2012 Issue | By Andrew Taylor
Tomarra Byington uses her experiences to help others
The screaming sounds of rockets and mortar shells fired were unnerving.
"The only way I can describe it to you is that you hear a whistle, but you don't know where it is coming from, and it feels like your heart has sunk down to the pit of your stomach," said Tomarra Byington, 28, a veteran of the U.S. Army and current Idaho State University student.
"When you were able to see where it hit, in a weird way you felt better, but it was still nerve wracking because the next one could hit you," she added. "They say the one that you don't hear is the one that will kill you."
Now that she is back in the United States, Byington is happy at ISU, complimentary of the institution and grateful for the programs ISU has for veterans, including the Veterans Sanctuary and ISU Armed Forces Veterans' Clubs. Byington works for the former, and was the first president of the latter. She is active in both, and they offer an outlet to share events like those described above with other veterans, who have a better understanding of them.
"We share a common bond and are able to share our experiences," Byington said. "It has been great for me to connect with other veterans at ISU and to continue to serve those who served. It establishes some of that camaraderie we once had in active service, and the club and Sanctuary give veterans a voice and bring awareness of veterans to ISU."
Byington, who started at ISU in fall 2008, became a senior this spring semester at ISU and has a double major in political science and international studies. After graduating from ISU, the combat-experienced veteran plans to attend graduate school and her ultimate goal is to do intelligence work for the National Security Agency, an entity she has already applied to serve an internship for this summer.
She said the ISU Veterans Sanctuary, established in summer 2009, has been a resource she can rely upon and has allowed her to be more successful in college.
"Because of the Sanctuary I don't have to struggle much as far VA-related issues are concerned or getting financial or academic help," said Byington, who takes about 17 credits per semester and works two jobs, a work-study position for the Veterans Sanctuary and as an administrative assistant at the Bingham County Ground Water District.
The veterans at ISU have stories, such as Byington's, that a traditional student is less likely to relate to. She has had unique experiences as a direct participant in the Iraq War.
In December 2011, when some of the United States last troops were withdrawing from Iraq towards the end of a nine-year war, Byington recalled heading into Iraq within 24 hours of when the war started.
"I started off in Kuwait and was part of the ground troops going into Iraq on March 20, 2003," said Byington, a Blackfoot native who graduated from Snake River High School in 2001. "It was exciting. I remember high-fiving the gentleman I was driving the truck with."
"I remember going across a berm into Iraq seeing UN buildings there and U.S. infantry soldiers and UN workers directing us through," continued Byington, "At that point, it sunk in what we were up against."
Though only standing 5-feet, 1-inch. tall, Byington spent her four years in the Army, and 14 months in Kuwait and Iraq, driving huge, 45-ton Heavy Equipment Transport trucks (HETs) used to haul things like M1 Abram Tanks and M931 trucks hauling 5,000-gallon fuel tankers, as well as performing administrative work.
"We had some close calls," she said. "We sustained sniper and RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) fire and our convoys were hit by IEDs (improvised explosive devices); things you come to expect in a combat zone. We frequently saw explosions and other atrocities of war."
Ordinary work conditions were challenging. The big trucks did not have air conditioning and she was sometimes driving them when weather temperatures outside were hotter than 120 degrees, and inside the cab of her truck was much higher. She was usually wearing full-battle gear with a helmet, full flak jacket, and desert camouflage uniform, and only had warm water to drink. She ate MREs (meals ready to eat), washed her clothes in a bucket and took showers using a quart water bottle.
"My time in Iraq allowed me to really appreciate what I had back here," Byington said. "It made me appreciate my family more, and Idaho, and the United States, and the simple things most people take for granted. You'd be surprised how happy you'd be to see a flushing toilet."
After her honorable discharge from the Army, she returned to Iraq in February 2005 to drive heavy equipment for Kellogg, Brown and Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, for three years in Baghdad. She worked to support the U.S. State Department and provided services to the Iraqi president and parliament. She hauled state department equipment and personnel to areas around Baghdad, including its airport and regional U.S. Embassy offices as far south as Kuwait.
Working for Kellogg, Brown and Root, although paying between $8,000 and $10,000 per month, had its perils, which included rocket attacks, IEDs on the road and car bombs going off.
"The car bombs going off in Baghdad were so powerful," she said. "I remember once the glass in our office window shattered, even though the bomb went off across the river from us."
The close calls took a toll: when asked about post-traumatic stress disorder, Byington said she has had some experience with it, but declined to elaborate. She preferred talking about the positive sides of her experience in a war zone.
"Don't always believe the media because it can focus on the bad things," Byington said. "Very few people know that our troops and not-for-profit groups were over there building new schools, hospitals and other facilities for Iraqis to improve their lives. If you want to know the truth of what was going on, ask a vet."
While working for the private company in Baghdad, she made Iraqi friends and donated money and items to Iraqi families in need. For example, she donated money to a family that needed to take their infant child to Saudi Arabia to have a surgery performed. Byington also gave a computer to an Iraqi coworker.
"Working as a civilian in Iraq made me appreciate the Iraqi people even more than I did while I was in the Army," she said. "They are just people like us wanting to live normal lives, not wanting to fear being blown up in the marketplace and wanting to send their kids to safe schools. They also want electricity and power for more than two hours a day."
With these experiences behind her, Byington looks forward with confidence.