Archive for Thursday, August 11, 2005

Twins end wartime separation anxiety

August 11, 2005

In the Iraqi desert, Melissa Claggett suffered a near miss.

She had just arrived at Camp Anaconda, a U.S. Army base near Balad. On the way, her convoy survived a blast from an improvised explosive device. There wasn't much damage, but she lost time.

On arrival, she wandered the camp, much larger than her base in Baghdad, searching for her twin sister.

Then the familiar form of a commanding officer strode toward her.

"He said 'Sergeant Claggett, did you know your sister just got on a plane to go see you?' I was devastated," Melissa said.

Their call to duty by the Army Reserve, separated Eudora twins Melanie and Melissa Claggett, for the first time. But their year apart didn't change their closeness. Each decided to make a surprise visit to each other.

At the time, Melissa had just started her tour and Melanie had nearly completed her year in Iraq. They had tried and failed to meet each other and that weekend was their last chance.

Because of the delay to the convoy, Melanie was able to fly to Baghdad and return in time to see her twin. Melanie's commanding officer was finally able to get the two together.

"He tells me where her tent is and I go up there, and she's outside waiting for me," Melissa said.

Despite the reunion's delay, the twins were about to spend the next two and a half days together.

"Don't you know surprises never work in Iraq?" Melanie asked her sister. "You're so stupid."

After more than two years of separation and serving in distant war, the twins are reunited. They're picking up their interrupted lives, returning to school this month at Johnson County Community College. They're also ready to look back at their time in Iraq, and, if need be, return.

Family ties

"Our dad is in the Reserves, so we kind of grew up with the idea that we would join when we turned 17," Melanie said. "So we did."

That day they joined sticks in Melanie's mind.

"It was scary," she said. "I guess the night we signed the papers, there was a big thunderstorm, I guess. Melissa and I got spooked because it was a big step to take."

The sisters completed basic and instructional training before starting school at Cottey College in Nevada, Mo.

"It's scary starting out, because your nerves are high and you expected it to be worse because of all the movies Hollywood does," Melanie said. "But it's not that bad."

Despite their training and the gathering war clouds, the twins started college in the fall of 2002 with little concern about the international situation.

First one off

"I think the possibility was there, but it wasn't something I thought about. I just didn't think about it all," Melanie said.

Melanie got the call first. She was the only one from her home company in Lawrence to be sent to Independence, Kan., for training. Separation from family is part of the military experience, but Melanie had to overcome the new experience of not having her sister at her side.

"I was pretty scared," Melanie said. "Melissa and I had never really spent a lot of time apart."

The trainees gained even more specialized supply training in Independence and watched the situation in Middle East with interest. By then, Melanie said she had on doubts about her immediate future.

"The war hadn't started yet, but we knew it was going to happen," Melanie said. "I knew I was going to war, and I was separated from Melissa. I was the only one in Lawrence to go down to Independence. I was all alone. I was a little bit spooked."

As she progressed through training, things became easier.

"As I started out, I went down to do supplies, and I made a lot of friends really quickly. Because we're all together, we all go through process together, so we're really tight."

Eventually, Melanie's training with the 1011th Quartermaster moved to Fort Riley.

"Fort Riley was pretty stressful for all of us," she said. "We completed all of the training we needed to take in Independence."

The company worked on weapons training at Fort Riley and went through the gas chamber again, Melanie said.

They also had no idea where they would be next.

"There were times when they would tell us we would go or we wouldn't go," Melanie said. "At that time, all of us college students had blown the rest of the semester. We couldn't go back, so we were pretty upset."

At the end of April, they were sent home for the weekend, because they had no word. Then at their homes, they got the call.

"This is when we were all in limbo for awhile," Melanie said. "We had to go back and pack our stuff, then on to a 22-hour flight to Iraq."

Last one behind

Meanwhile, Melissa continued to take classes at Cottey College. Finding the separation as difficult as her twin, she began to withdraw from those around her.

"When she left, it was really hard on me," Melissa said. "I kind of became secluded for those two months after Melanie left. I saw a counselor just to talk about stuff. Just because I couldn't talk to my friends that my sister was going to war. They wouldn't understand that stuff."

Like father, like soldiers

Having one daughter away at war and the chance another would go soon was part of the lifestyle they chose, the twin's father, Rob Claggett said.

"Since I was the one that enlisted them, I guess, and I've been in it for 30 years, I was very pleased," Rob said. "I don't know if I knew how to handle it because I've never experienced it before. But it was certainly something that I expected could happen. It goes with the territory. I've always taken my service very seriously."

The supply camp

Before crossing into Iraq, Melanie spent time in Kuwait, but even before that, she had the long flight to get through.

"The trip was stressful," she said. "I mean on the flight. We all tried to sleep. The stewardesses wanted to give us good meals and stuff because they knew where we were going. I think they fed us seven or eight times in one day."

When she arrived in Kuwait, the war had just started and the American base was still being completed, Melanie said. After two weeks in Kuwait she flew into Iraq and Camp Anaconda.

There, she began her duties, arriving at the camp a few weeks ahead of her company to get things organized

"I had a number of jobs," she said. "I guess I was the 'catch-all' person."

One of her main responsibilities was to drive her company commander.

"He and I got along really well," she said. "He took care of all of us. He cared a lot about all of us."

Because it was still early in the war, it took months to fully set up in the camp.

"The first couple of months, we were still setting up," Melanie said. "Fifteen hours a day working. After the first couple of months, everything settled down and we had a routine."

Melanie worked from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., driving the commander, making reports and delivering mail.

"I knew at least one point in time when I was driving into the company area, people were looking forward to seeing me," Melanie said.

As the months dragged on, Melanie had time to keep in contact with her family and friends through the Internet.

"Most of it flows together," she said. "We had no whole days that stand out, but moments stand out. I met my current boyfriend over there. We've been dating for two years, but we met over there. I consider that a good thing -- that I met him."

There were other moments Melanie remembers. For instance when California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger visited the troops inside a tank.

"They must lie in the movies because he can't drive one," Melanie said. "We all thought we were going to die because he drove off the road and people started to scatter because we thought he was going to hit us.

"It probably wasn't as random as we thought it was, but for a split second we all lost our breath."

Around the end of Melanie's tour she got word that her sister would soon be much closer.

Melissa's story

At school, Melissa made it a point not to live like a soldier. She had to live every day as if she were going to graduate. She didn't worry about being called up.

"If I did worry about it, then what's the point of school?" Melissa said. "You might as well just sit around and wait."

She put aside initial depression over Melanie's absence and continued for another year at Cottey. She met friend Sarah Shipman, who made sure she got out and enjoyed herself.

"I was studying to go into a Spanish major, then I was called to service in November," Melissa said.

Her training was at Washington, Iowa, then Fort Riley.

"It really went extremely slow," Melissa said. "The training you know was tough, but it was cold, and you know it was a lot of long hours and seemed to drag."

The drills and the things she learned seemed foreign. But Melissa said they sunk in.

"We reacted instantaneously when we needed to," she said. "All that training came back, and we did what we needed to," Melissa said.

Her company left Feb. 28, 2004, for Iraq.

In Baghdad, she worked at a base called Log Base Seitz, supplying water and food to the coalition forces.

"I worked in two different warehouses," she said. "The first one was the equipment warehouse, and I was stock control, which basically meant I oversaw basically everything that went in and went out of the warehouse, and handled all the reports."

There she had to deal with attacks and mortars almost daily. The worst came when the Army officially transferred authority to the newly created Iraqi government. Melissa's base was hit.

"I was just devastated because all my friends died," she said. "When the mortars fell, I prayed to God that it would just stop and that no one would die."

The mortars hit the petroleum field and fires spread across the compound. The smoke and fire burned for days, Melissa said.

"But the thing I remember most about that day, was how many people came together," Melissa said. " You had the people you liked, and the people you didn't get along so well with, but that day everybody came together to take care of the hurt and to put out the fire.

"That's what the Army is all about and the camaraderie, and people pulling together to get the job done."

The work was long, but Melissa was able to relax.

"We used to get together and have barbecues after everybody was off work," Melissa said. "Special forces would bring us steaks or something. And we'd grill it instead of going to chow hall. We'd throw a football around or play hacky sack. Those are some of the fun memories."

One of Melissa's final memories of the Middle East came when she was relaxing in Kuwait, after her tour had finished. She was inside a tent with her bunkmates when a peal of thunder echoed in the distance.

"I remember one time, it was raining, and thunder cracked, and we all rolled off of our cots. And then we started laughing," Melissa said. "There were no mortars in Kuwait, and we weren't going to be attacked when we went home. And all of a sudden we realized it was over."

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