It was the third time she had ever flown, and the plane was the “size of the Titanic.” Days before she had packed bottles of Garnier Fructis shampoo, a quilt and her special pillow into a huge metal case and shipped it to herself — her new address in a country 6,600 miles from home.
The plane hit the ground at 3 a.m., and the captain came over the intercom. The outside temperature was 107 degrees.
“It will hit you like a thick brick wall,” the captain continued.
Jessica Cook, now a 29-year-old from West Columbia, stepped off the plane in Kuwait in July 2007. It took a minute for her breathing to return to normal. She was in new territory.
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Cook spent 15 months in Iraq — at Camp Victory, between Baghdad and Fallujah — serving in geographic information systems and mapping. She worked in Al-Faw Palace, one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces outside of Baghdad, 12 hours a day.
Inside the palace, there were marble floors, marble walls and crystal chandeliers. It was gorgeous. But outside, everything was dust and dirt.
Trash was piled waist-high, and the dirt blew like baby powder, Cook said. At the palace, she was a three-minute walk from active combat.
“You got mortared. You got stray rounds all the time,” Cook said.
The soldiers lived and bathed in rows of trailers. When there were stray rounds, they put on their gear and hit the ground. The trailer would shake as the bullets whirred overhead.
Cook joined the military with three goals: travel the world, meet new people and start a lifelong career.
After graduating from Lexington High School in 2002, Cook went to the Art Institute of Charlotte for graphic design. She was just a couple months shy of graduation when she decided it wasn’t the right fit.
Before she joined the Army, she was working as a server at Chili’s and didn’t want to be 50 years old, still taking orders and clearing tables with a plastered smile. It hit her all at once — that was a very real possibility if she didn’t make a change.
“I thought, ‘you know what, let’s go all in,’” Cook said. “I joined the military.”
She trained at Fort Belvoir in Northern Virginia and was based at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. The reality of deployment set in at Fort Belvoir: They said Fort Bragg was waiting on Cook’s class. “Don’t unpack your bags.”
“I had this thought in my mind that if I get on that plane, I’m not coming back,” Cook said.
But when she boarded that plane for the heat of a Kuwait summer, she was excited.
“You know you are getting to do something that not many people will ever get to do,” Cook said.
Her daily routine was split into two halves: the first half of her deployment and the second. At first, her routine was simple, a bit monotonous.
Every morning, Cook would wake up at 10:30 or 11 and get ready for work. She would work at the palace from noon to midnight, with a 4 p.m. break for physical training and group lunch and dinner.
At midnight, she would go back to the trailers and take a shower.
The showers were about a two-minute walk from her home trailer, which looking back, Cook said was a terrifying distance.
“You’re in the dark, by yourself in a sex-deprived war zone,” Cook said.
There was another side to the shower trailers, though: the employees. Cook befriended the Indian men who worked on four- to six-year contracts to clean the trailer bathrooms. They would make around $50 a month and send it all home to their families, Cook said.
Many of the people in Iraq, outside the U.S. military, were from India, some from Turkey. There were very few Iraqis near Camp Victory.
The men contracted to clean the bathrooms were the sweetest and most selfless people Cook had met. She started bringing them fruit — grapes and apples were their favorites — in to-go containers from the soldiers’ cafeteria.
After taking R&R at home in South Carolina, Cook returned to Iraq with a new ambition. She shifted her work schedule to 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and spent her evenings salsa dancing at events sponsored by the USO, a nonprofit that provides programming to U.S. troops.
During the day, she mapped. She analyzed imagery from satellites, watched traffic and made maps. She would draw and plot bridges and made President George W. Bush a map during his visit to the war zone.
Cook also spent a lot of time on guard duty at Al-Faw Palace. One day, while wearing her full suit of gear, she crossed a bridge to the palace. A thermometer on the bridge read 137 degrees.
Twice, she had to go on patrols to Baghdad’s Green Zone, the international presence of the city. Each time, she was in full uniform, with her battle weapon locked and loaded.
“You just have to shoot,” Cook said.
In January, the U.S. military lifted a ban on women in active combat. Women are now able to fight on the front lines and receive every title in the ranks. Cook spent time in the world of active combat — she worked alongside it and traveled through it.
But, she doesn’t want to be on that front line.
“I’m happy women have that opportunity,” Cook said.
Her concerns, however, are big. Women are, by nature, nurturers. Men are attached to their mothers, sisters and wives, Cook said, and if there is a woman in their unit, the men might get distracted in trying to protect them.
“I really think it could put the mission in danger,” Cook said. “I really do.”
One of the biggest obstacles and most talked-about challenges of deployment — in active combat or not — is the transition home.
“When you go into the military, you’re fighting for other people’s freedoms. But you lose your freedom,” Cook said. “You have to let yourself go and join this team.”
Reclaiming yourself is tough. And Cook went about it in an unconventional way.
Three months after moving back to South Carolina, after 15 months in the Middle East, Cook took a job at the Wal-Mart on Bush River Road in Columbia. She worked in the back warehouse for minimum wage and no benefits. She didn’t need a job for the money; she just wanted to meet new people.
“In combat, you have to worry about dying. At Wal-Mart, people were getting in trouble for putting something on the wrong shelf,” Cook said.
Her favorite thing, in what was largely a miserable job, was playing mediator to “high school drama between 40-year-old women.”
That job lasted only a couple of months.
Now, Cook is a full-time student at the University of South Carolina, about to finish her sophomore year of credit hours in geography, with an emphasis in GIS contracting.
In high school, she made fun of her friends who took the SAT.
“I slept in on Saturday mornings,” Cook said.
But after living the career she wants to pursue in Iraq, the school setting seems like a logical next step. When she graduates, she wants to work for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. She’s always dreamed of working as a defense contractor overseas.
“But, now that I got my honey,” Cook joked, in reference to her boyfriend of two years, Michael.
She is a student, but she isn’t interested in living the student life. She lives with her boyfriend in Gaston, about 45 minutes from campus.
“I guess I play house,” Cook said.
Her biggest challenge at the university is, well, parking. She’s been lucky that she doesn’t have to work because of an allowance included in the GI Bill.
Cook is still a member of the Ready Reserve, which means she can be called for active duty at any given time.
“If men show up here with little ear pieces, I have to go,” Cook said with a smile.