BRUNSWICK, Maine — Davielle Rodgers still sleeps with “an arsenal” under her bed, more than a year after returning from Afghanistan.
Until recently, she insisted on sitting with her back to the wall, to allow her to survey the room. On Wednesday, Rodgers knew the precise location of each of four people behind her in a coffee shop. “And the exits are the doors there and there, the windows there, the floor and the ceiling,” she said, pointing over her shoulder.
A technical sergeant in the U.S. Air Force Reserves, Rodgers had only been home in Brunswick a short time when she heard a car backfire one day and dropped to the ground. Her mother asked what she was doing. She explained it was an instinctive reaction, the kind of survival mechanism that also causes recently returned veterans to assume a defensive posture when a sudden noise, like when a toaster pops up, occurs.
These are the residual effects of serving in a war zone. They are among the shared experiences that make it so hard for many veterans when they return to family, friends and employers who can’t relate to the hair-trigger way life must be lived in a war zone.
“In the military, we’re trained to react,” Rodgers said Wednesday, recalling one particular experience when an Afghan national attacked her before she pinned him to the ground.
Rodgers, 33, is undergoing evaluation to determine whether she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. She finds she’s changed since returning from her fourth deployment — her third to the Middle East — perhaps in part due to the grueling work she performed for six months in Afghanistan.
While in Afghanistan, Rodgers worked in a morgue. She still has nightmares thinking about her assignment to the Fallen Warrior Program, preparing bodies to be sent home.
“It was tough to swallow,” Rodgers said, her gaze fixed on a corner tile on the floor. “I was at church a lot and spoke to a chaplain. The first time I had to remove myself, and I threw up. I couldn’t process the reality of what I was doing.”
During her six months working in the morgue, Rodgers “processed and boarded” 65 to 70 U.S. military personnel and “host nationals,” or Afghan fighters, she said. She and her colleagues would open body bags, wipe down the bodies, ice them and then place them in a casket.
“Sometime we only saw them from the neck up,” she said. “Sometimes we’d know it was just a body bag of parts.”
Then they’d load the casket onto a van before a priest or chaplain said a prayer. They’d carry the casket to a loader, which rises 100 feet to place the casket in the back of a C5 transport plane for the final voyage toward burial and grieving loved ones at home.
“We have to be really, really respectful,” she said. “We’re making sure these people get home to their loved ones. Not everybody gets to have that … after that I looked at things differently.”
One day, as Rodgers and several other airmen lifted a 250-300-pound casket over their heads to load it, one of them lost his grip.
“I had to swing myself around and grab it on both sides,” Rodgers said. “I was straddling the casket on each side over my head, but I thought, ‘If it hits me in the face, at least I’m going to keep it from hitting the ground.’”
Rodgers focused on one thought to get her through: “You are making sure these people go home,” she said. “I did what I needed to do.”
For Rodgers, doing what she needed to do wasn’t unexpected. From the day in 2005 when she headed to basic training — leaving her then-5-year-old daughter in her mother’s care — Rodgers had a fierce determination to show naysayers what she was capable of.
Not long after she arrived at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Rodgers tripped on someone’s shoelace and fell, ripping the muscles on the side of her knee. One instructor told her as she left for treatment, “You’ll never be back.”
That angered her and heightened her determination.
“I pretty much pushed myself to come back, to become dorm chief and our flight graduated with honors,” she said Wednesday. “I made that [instructor] basically eat his words. I’ve been told so many times that I can’t do something and then turned around and proved them wrong.”
Since then, Rodgers has served four tours, in Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar and Afghanistan. She has been away for most of the last eight years, working primarily in force support to ensure troops have the equipment they need.
Despite the sometimes 14-hour days, Rodgers used her few spare moments in Afghanistan to continue a program she’d begun during her first tour, Teddy Bears for Iraq.
For years, businesses from Maine and as far away as Europe have donated stuffed animals and school supplies to be distributed to residents in the areas where troops were deployed, often schools. Donations were plentiful. Her daughter’s class at Harriet Beecher Stowe School in Brunswick sent boxes of teddy bears, school supplies and candy.
“We were trying to educate and rebuild what had been destroyed,” Rodgers said of the program, then renamed Teddy Bears for Afghanistan. “Just to be able to give something back to a kid who has nothing … it was one of the better experiences I’ve ever had. It was such a huge success, and I wanted to see it continued.”
Not like on TV
Rodgers said her experience in Afghanistan and during other deployments is not accurately portrayed on TV news, “which only shows you, hour by hour, things blowing up. But I spent three months helping farmers learn how to identify security threats and was able to say, ‘You have the tools; go out and use them.’”
During the times, sometimes months, when she was unable to communicate with family, Rodgers and her peers found ways to amuse themselves, often making “mix tapes” of their favorite music, which they listened to while sitting on Humvees or other military vehicles.
“We would be sitting with our helmets, just rocking out,” she said.
Even local residents tried to make their stay more pleasant, including employees of a local coffee shop who made her “Turtle Mocha” each afternoon before her overnight shift began.
“The nationals would say, ‘Hey, ma’am, how ya doing?” she said. “They could have a line out the door, but they’d start my drink so it was ready for me.”
Letters and notes from home, including from employees and customers of Joshua’s Tavern, where she still works as a waitress and bartender, were critical in helping her get through her deployment.
“That simple support gets you through a lot of hard times,” she said.
But Rodgers is surprised — and disheartened — by people she has encountered who sometimes confront and challenge her about her military service.
Stepping off a plane at Baltimore Washington International Airport last winter, her unit walked through cheers from the USO before being faced by what Rodgers said were protesters yelling obscenities.
She said she understands some people don’t believe in the American troops’ mission, but she wishes they could support the troops themselves.
Rodgers has also been approached by a one of a group of war protesters on the Brunswick Mall who asked her, “Why do you do what you do?”
“I said, ‘So you can stand there and ask me that question,’” Rodgers said Wednesday. “They believe in a noble cause, and, honestly, I wish I lived in an era where we didn’t have to have people going to war, but we do. As much as I would like to see peace break out, I’m a realist, and that’s not going to happen in my lifetime. … Until it does, we have to have these people volunteer. You may not believe in what we’re doing, but as long as you support the people coming home — that’s really all we ask for.”
Rodgers was even more shocked when her now-12-year-old daughter found herself defending her mother’s service. Recently, she was in a fight with a boy at school, after the boy called Rodgers “a baby killer.”
“She punched him in the face,” Rodgers said. “And I’m glad she did — she stuck up for her mom.”
Rodgers said she has changed a lot since coming home. She has nightmares and night terrors, and she can’t tolerate large crowds.
“I can’t go to concerts, which I used to love to do,” she said. “And it’s very, very easy to get me angry. I have a shorter fuse. It’s not something I enjoy, because it’s not who I am.”
Still, in February 2013, Rodgers signed on for six more years. She’s a supervisor — “a mom” — to troops in the 439th Operations Support Squadron based at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, Massachusetts. She’s back in uniform one weekend a month, two weeks a year.
Rodgers asked to stay in Maine, but she knows if her unit is reactivated, she could be deployed overseas again.
For now, she’s enjoying her family, has a “wonderful, fabulous” boyfriend and is back at work at Joshua’s. Last weekend, she graduated from Southern New Hampshire University with an associate degree and returned to school two days later to continue working toward her bachelor’s.
Most importantly, she’s enjoying her daughter and “an uncomplicated life.”
“She’s at that age when I really want to be around, but I know I’ve given her the impact of a strong woman in her life,” Rodgers said.