A week ago, I came home to find Specialist Argueta sitting on my family room sofa – it was a surprise visit, all the way from Iraq. Alice Argueta is Martina’s daughter, the woman who began helping me with my kids and my house 2 days a week when Tess was born — Saint Martina, she was often called. I met Alice when she was 15 years old, a sophomore at Belmont high school, infamous for being built on a toxic waste dump. Alice would hold Tess when she was a baby, draw her pictures, mostly of cats, to hang on her nursery wall. One day, three years later, I found Martina crying in my house.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
I couldn’t imagine what kind of trouble Alice could be in. She was a freshman at Cal State Northridge; she ran on the cross-country team and played the clarinet. She was happy living in the dorms.
“She joined the National Guard. She’s going to Iraq.”
This was in 2006, when every day I read a list of Californians killed in Iraq in the LA Times.
“Now. She’s gone. She’s in basic training.” Martina wiped her eyes. She had two other children already in this war, one on an aircraft carrier in the gulf, another on the ground.
I have to admit, I was mad at Alice. I felt like she was making a mistake, giving up on college, risking her life. I didn’t want to worry about her over there. And the look on Martina’s face was so miserable. She didn’t want her youngest child so far away, fighting in a war.
“Why are you doing this?” I asked when she was home before being deployed.
“If I go to Iraq, I will have better career opportunities when I come home. I can save up a lot of money and buy my mother an apartment.” She was 18 years old.
Now Alice is 21 and she has a son. This last deployment has been the longest – 9 months. That morning, Martina had been telling me how her grandson, Nathan, hated his Spiderman costume on Halloween. I went to pick up my carpool and when I got home, Alice was sitting on my sofa in full camo, with her hair in a tight little bun.
“Oh my God,” I said when we hugged. “Oh my God.”
“I’ve been on a plane for 21 hours,” she said.
“Did you know she was coming?” I asked Martina.
“No.” She waved her hands, she dabbed the corner of her eye with her finger, as if that would help.
“So how is it?” I asked. My kids stared at her in her baggy pixilated uniform, cocked their heads towards her – this was something they’d never seen.
“How are the trenches?” Tess asked.
“There are no trenches in Iraq,” I said, “That was World War I.” I turned to Alice: “You’re in a safe place, right?”
“Yeah, I’m in admin,” she said. “Working at a desk.”
“Do you hear gun shots all the time?” Ronan asked.
“Sometimes. We were mortared. That was scary.”
Alice works on the airbase, Tallil, in Southern Iraq.
“It’s near the Zaggurnat of Ur,” she said, “You know what that is?”
It sounded kind of familiar, maybe something I learned in 9th grade Ancient Civ.
“And the House of Abraham,” she said, smiling, like it’s really cool.
It is really cool. She showed me on my computer.
“That used to be inside the airbase, but it made the people really mad. Because it’s like a holy place for them. Now when tourists visit, we have to pay the people,” she said, nodding her head, like this was the better way.
“Does everyone make a big deal about you when they see you in the airports?’ I asked. “Do people buy you drinks at the bar?” I had seen my sister-in-law do this. Every time she sees a soldier in a bar, she buys her or him a drink. She and I don’t always agree, but I think that gesture is really nice.
“There was a lot of support in Dallas,” she said. “There’s a lot of support everywhere, but in Dallas, there was really a lot.”
I pictured everyone giving her a thumbs up as she marched through the airport in her lace up boots.
“I really love some of the support programs, like Operation Write Home.” She explained that volunteers made cards for her to send home to Martina and Nathan. “And Dog Tags For Kids.” Another service that makes up dog tags for her son.
“How long will you be home?”
“Two weeks. Then I have three more months.” Later she explained that she planned it this way, so it wouldn’t be as hard on Nathan, so the last leg of her trip would be short.
I guess the point of this blog on Veterans Day is to say how proud I am of Alice.
“Every day is a Monday,” she said, “We never get a day off.”
I think of her over there in her shared quarters, visiting her baby on Skpe. “He puts his hands on the screen,” she said.
When I was her age, I was in Poughkeepsie, dancing all night at the Mug. Every day was a Friday, not a Monday, every night a Saturday night. God forbid I have even had classes on Fridays – that would have messed up my Thursday nights.
And this girl – because to me, she’s still a girl – has now been deployed to Iraq twice. She’s left her baby with her mother, thousands of miles away, she’s traveled 21 hours on several planes in combat boots, for a surprise visit.
I’m totally impressed.