Elginites in arms
- Bill Rautenstrauch
Small world, small army.
That's what 1st Lt. Stephanie Noell and Staff Sgt. Amanda Lewallen must have thought when they bumped into each other a few months ago in Mazari Sharif, Afghanistan.
The two 29-year-olds had grown up and gone to school together in Elgin, but hadn't seen each other for a while.
"Neither one of us knew the other was over there," Noell recalled. "We'd both been promoted since the last time we saw each other, so we said, Â‘Hey, congratulations.' "
Noell and Lewallen recently wrapped up year-long tours in the struggling, war-ravaged Asian nation. Now, they've got more in common than formative times spent in a small town in Northeast Oregon.
After high school, both women joined the Oregon National Guard. Lewallen Â— then Amanda Leonard Â— became a transportation specialist. Noell opted for military intelligence.
Lewallen was following in the footsteps of her father, Jay Leonard, who served as transportation platoon sergeant and later as the first sergeant in the La Grande-based Third Battalion, 116th Armored Cavalry. Her brother, Tom, also was a member of the unit.
After basic and advanced training, she joined the 141st Support Battalion in Salem. There, in 1998, she met and married Glenn Lewallen, a former Navy man who was filling out his military career with service in the Guard. They have a 5-year-old son, Teddy.
Later, the family moved to Elgin. Glenn drilled with the 3/116th while Amanda continued her service with the 141st.
In February 2006, her outfit deployed in support of the 41st Brigade Combat Team in Afghanistan. Lewallen took part in training at Camp Shelby, Miss., then took some hard-earned leave.
"I pretty much stayed at home and relaxed," she said. "I just wanted to make sure I was prepared to go over there."
By June she was on duty at Mazari Sharif.
Noell joined the Guard in June 2002, taking her basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C.
She said her decision to join surprised friends and family members. She had spent time away from home as a foreign exchange student in New Zealand, but that was a far cry from military service.
"I'm not the kind that likes getting tired, dirty and cold," she said. "There was a lot of that in basic, but it's not what I think about today. What I remember is the working together, the bond you form with people."
After Fort Jackson, she trained at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas, as a signal intelligence analyst. She learned how to interpret enemy signals and how to break codes.
"It's about forming a picture of the enemy before you ever meet him. It's a heck of a lot of fun, especially if you like puzzles," Noell said.
After training, she joined a military intelligence company with the 41st Brigade in Tigard. Then in January 2005, with rumors of an Afghanistan mission swirling, she decided to go to Officer's Candidate School.
"I jumped the gun, so I was sure I could deploy," she said. "We'd been hearing about Afghanistan. It sounded like an exciting mission and a good opportunity for the Guard. It turned out to be that."
After earning her commission, she upped her value by attending a language school at Fort Lewis, Wash. There she learned Dari, an Afghan dialect.
"It was a challenge. We had to learn how to write it, speak it, read it. But it was a terrific course and being able to use that language opened up some terrific opportunities," she said.
After that, she took some fast-track, common task training at Camp Shelby. Then it was off to Camp Phoenix, near Kabul, Afghanistan.
She too arrived in-country in June.
A primary mission for the 41st Brigade Combat team was to train soldiers of the Afghanistan National Army. Lewallen's unit, the 141st Brigade Support Battalion, was busy from the time it hit the ground to the day it went home.
"Our job was to transport supplies and equipment to the guys at the forward operating bases," Lewallen said. "We went outside the wire a lot, not every day, but probably about five times a week."
Around Mazari Sharif, and later, Gardez, Lewallen took part in 75 convoy operations, logging over 12,500 miles in a five-ton truck.
At best, it was difficult work. She recalls hot and cold weather extremes, mountain roads resembling goat paths, dust storms that blinded, and mud bogs that sucked vehicles in past the axles.
And lurking always was the chance of terrorist attack.
"There were a couple of tough spots, where we got close to the IEDs (improvised explosive devices)," she said. "Three or four convoys got hit, but we never lost anybody, thank God."
Focusing on the job at hand helped her overcome her fears.
"At first I was a little nervous, because you never know. But you get used to doing your job. I don't think you're human if you're not scared."
Some of the missions were humanitarian, giving Lewallen a chance to mix with the nationals. She saw their poverty up close and encountered people with a totally different outlook on life.
"Sometimes the women would reach out and touch my gear. They were just amazed that a woman would be in the military," she said.
During her tour, Lewallen served as a squad leader and was promoted to staff sergeant. She came home with several awards, including the Meritorious Service Medal.
While she is proud of the role she played in the 41st BCT, she takes her achievements in stride.
"I wasn't expecting awards. I just went over there and did my job and came back," she said.
Noell's first assignment in Afghanistan was as a radio platoon leader. After about four months, people higher up decided she'd be more useful in Civil Affairs.
She joined Task Force Phoenix's Effects Cell, a unit directly involved in the rebuilding of the country's infrastructure.
She helped negotiate contracts for projects ranging from the digging of a well to the rebuilding of a hospital.
She worked closely with locals. Her knowledge of the Dari dialect helped immensely.
"It helped me build relationships," she said. "I was told the elders would ignore me because I was a woman, but when I talked with them I got answers. They appreciated that I'd taken the effort to learn the language."
Her language skills had limits, so there was always an interpreter standing by. Even then, her knowledge of the language was useful.
"It helped me in listening. It gave me time to think about what I wanted the interpreter to say next," she said.
Most of the projects she was involved with took place in and around Kabul. She said she considered it important that the work went to local people.
"We tried to buy everything we could locally, and use local companies to do the project. That way you're putting money into the local economy and encouraging growth in the same area," she said.
The projects were funded by the U.S. government. Noell said she had the impression smaller projects yielded the larger returns.
She said "rice and bean" drops in which the Afghanistan National Army handed out food went a long way in fostering goodwill.
"We were trying to rebuild a relationship of trust between a people and their government," she said.
Sometimes, the ANA distributed items donated by citizens in the United States.
Elgin, Noell's home town, got into the act. Beth McMullen, Noell's teacher in the fourth grade, gathered school supplies and tooth brushes for children and sent them on.
Kabul is a crowded, noisy, poverty-stricken and polluted city. At the same time, it is vibrant and colorful, according to Noell.
It took time to get used to living and working there, she said.
"In a lot of ways it seemed surreal. None of it looks like it could fit into America," she said. "Just driving in Kabul was a challenge. It was enough to turn your hair white."
It can be a mean place; vehicle-borne suicide bombers are a constant threat. But Noell said she didn't get too close to that kind of thing.
"I always hoped the things we were working on wouldn't stop if something happened," she said.
Noell said she came to respect the Afghan people and their efforts to build a new nation.
"They're just people like us. They just want the best for their kids. You'll find good people and bad people anywhere you go, and I was lucky. I found a lot of really neat people," she said.
Lewallen and Noell both returned home in June, and since then have been enjoying time with their families.
While Lewallen was away, her husband, Glenn, kept himself busy at his job and around the couple's Elgin home. He never let himself run out of work to do.
"When your wife's gone, part of you is gone, too. I took care of Teddy and the house, but it just wasn't the same," he said.
Amanda had long wanted him to remodel the bathroom. He bought lumber, had it milled. He built new walls, new shelves. He put in mirrors and added a hand-made bench.
Teddy grew a year older and a couple of inches taller, but otherwise wasn't much changed when his mom got home. The boy said it's great to have her back.
"I really missed her. Now we can play and color together again," he said.
Throughout Amanda's absence, Glenn saved all his spare change and made plans for a trip to Disneyland. The family took that trip not long after her return.
Noell, who is single, is happy to be reunited with her family, including her parents, Nancy and Gary Noell, grandmother Virginia Lee Brown, and her sisters, nieces and nephews.
They naturally worried about her when she was gone, and are overjoyed that she's back.
"She's a great girl, and I'm thrilled to pieces," said Brown. "When she was gone, I prayed a lot, but what can you do? You can't change things."
The two soldiers from Elgin have something else in common these days. Both are looking forward to new adventures.
Lewallen, who would like to be a game warden, hopes to start college soon.
Noell, who has a bachelor's degree in English from Eastern Oregon University, is giving serious thought to graduate studies.
Both remain in the Guard, and likely will for years to come. It's a safe bet they'll go overseas again.
"I'll probably have to go back to Afghanistan in 2009, and I feel OK about it. It's part of the job and I already know the routes," said Lewallen.
Noell said she looks forward to a second tour in Afghanistan.
"I'm optimistic about the country's future, and I hope the U.S. stays the course there," she said. "I'm excited about the possibility of going back."