This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Staff Sgt. Melissa "Missy" Squires can look at her photos from Iraq now:
- The dramatic pictures of her Missouri National Guard unit, the 203rd Engineer Battalion, Company B, digging through the rubble of the U.N. building after a terrorist attack in August 2003.
- The dozens and dozens of pictures of life on base, her unit's construction projects and posing with friendly Iraqis.
- The video clips of her convoy crawling through a congested Baghdad neighborhood searching for an alternate route home after reports that an IED was waiting for them somewhere on the roadside.
When Squires returned home in July 2004, she didn't want to see those images. Just looking at them used to make her feel sick to her stomach.
"I hated every day over there," she said. "It was like all the days ran together."
But now, when Squires looks at her digital scrapbook she feels something else -- a growing pride in her service. Squires was one of eight women -- and the only mother -- among the 130 or so members of Company B sent to Iraq in June 2003 to help rebuild that country's schools, roads and infrastructure.
"Down the road when I talk to my kids -- when they get older -- I can let them know, you know, your mom did something -- she did something that was a part of history. And I'm proud -- proud -- that I did it,'' Squires said.
But she added, "In order for me to give that to my country I had to give up time with my family, and to me that's a huge sacrifice."
Five years have passed since Squires kissed her husband and two little boys goodbye and went off to war. She expected to be in Iraq for six months -- and home in time for Christmas -- but her company's tour of duty was extended twice.
Squires remembers Mother's Day 2004 as just one more long and trying day in Baghdad -- worrying that her toddler, Derek, who was just 2 when she left, wouldn't remember her when she got home. Squires means it when she says her boys don't have to do anything special for her this Mother's Day.
"All I need for Mother's Day is a hug," she said.
Living with Iraq
For the Squires family, Iraq isn't just a news story about a far-off war that might get big play today -- or not be mentioned, at all. It's not about changing poll results. Or a topic in a presidential debate.
Iraq is the elephant with a permanent seat in the family room.
Squires, 39, who has a full-time job with the Guard, doesn't worry that she will be sent back. She works at the St. Peters armory as an administrator with the 3175th Chemical Company, the unit she joined after a statewide restructuring.
Her fear is for her husband: Master Sgt. Steve Squires, who is also with the Missouri National Guard. He has yet to be deployed, though he has come close at least three times.
It was Steve Squires who stayed on the homefront -- as "Sgt. Mom,'' he refers to himself -- taking care of the couple's two sons, David, now 14, and Derek, now 7.
"It was a challenge. Boy, it was a challenge," he says about that year and a half. The couple met while serving in the Army and have been married 17 years.
As the nation's global war on terrorism approaches seven years, Steve Squires is ready for his turn. He also works full time for the Guard, as an operations sergeant with the 175th Military Police Battalion, based in Columbia. He commutes 86 miles each way to his job from the Squires' home in Moscow Mills.
"I want to go. I want to get it done. I'm not going to spend 25 or 30 years in the military and never say I've been to combat," he said. "It's the business we're in. It's what we train for."
Melissa Squires can't bear the thought of her husband going to Iraq because she knows firsthand the risks and dangers.
"I know what could happen -- especially in his line of work as military police," she said.
Squires can still describe in vivid detail the sounds of being shot at or how she once walked past an unexploded mortar shell on her way to the mess hall.
The irony is that she deployed with an engineering company that would not have been among those expected to be sent to a combat zone, Steve Squires said.
Five years later, the couple share the household chores again -- with the exception of the laundry.
"He doesn't like the way I fold clothes," she said, smiling.
"She's restricted from laundry," he said.
And in this military family, at least for now, it is her car that has the decal in the right rear window that says: IRAQ CAMPAIGN VETERAN.
In the months following her return from Iraq, community groups would sometimes ask Melissa Squires to speak publicly about her experience. On one such occasion in May 2005, Squires stood on a stage in her blue dress uniform addressing a crowd of several hundred assembled at Baue Memorial Gardens cemetery in St. Charles for a Memorial Day tribute.
"Young people go off to war, and they're forever changed," she said that day, speaking from the heart about duty and sacrifice for country.
Adjusting to everyday life after Iraq has, at times, been difficult, Squires said. Even four years later, she says she is still dealing with what she refers to as "issues."
She freely admits to being overprotective of her family and spoiling her boys because she knows there are no guarantees about life. She worries about her husband, sons, mother -- even her loyal little dog Ditto.
"I worry about these guys getting abducted, getting killed. It's just a death thing," she said. "I don't want to say I totally give the boys everything they want, but it's because I was away from them -- and you're afraid that you're not going to be here the next day."
In particular, she holds tightly to Derek, now 7, who was out of diapers by the time she got home from Iraq.
"I just want to hang on to him forever, and I don't want him to ever grow up,'' Squires said. "I missed the Pampers stage. I missed that time, and I hate it. Just hate it. So, I figure if I take lots of pictures and spend a lot of time with him, it will make up for the time."
Squires' older son David, who was 9 when she deployed to Iraq, understood enough to worry about his mom's safety while she was gone.
"I'm just afraid that either one of these two could go," David said, gesturing to his mom and dad. "It would be painful to see both of them go, but I'm not sure that would happen because someone has to watch us."
David, now a freshman at Troy Buchanan High School, says his dad did a good job during his mom's absence, but he can't explain how difficult it would be should she have to leave for another year.
"She missed my whole fifth grade," David said. "That was really hard, and I had a good time in fifth grade. I went to camp, and she missed out on that whole experience. Of, course, I sent her letters. But it was really hard."
David says he worries even more about how his little brother would react.
"If Derek's with Dad, he'll cry because he doesn't have his mom, but if he's with Mom, he'll say, 'Oh. I want Dad.' I'm kind of like that, too, but I don't show it."
A daily habit in the Squires household is telling one another to have a good day. And Melissa Squires is only half-joking when she says her sons won't ever have to move out of her house, even if they get married and have children of their own.
"They could just live in the basement," she said.
'I'm not the same'
Squires said when she first got home, she used to go alone sometimes to the Veterans Memorial Walk in O'Fallon, Mo. -- not for from where the family used to live -- to sit alone quietly late at night or early in the morning.
"I'm not the same person I was before I went -- I hold a lot of stuff in, and he gets the brunt of it. He keeps me grounded," she said, pointing to her husband.
"We're each other's sounding boards," he said.
Squires also has a network of supportive friends: among them paramedics and Vietnam veterans who, she says, understand her "issues."
Since moving to Moscow Mills, Squires has joined Lincoln County's Ambulance Board because many of the couple's new friends and neighbors also wear uniforms: firefighters and paramedics, police officers and state patrol.
"I like to help people in the community rather than just be focused on myself," she said. "I didn't have public service in my blood until I got back from Iraq."
When her enlistment was up in 2007, Squires said she chose to stay in the National Guard partially because she had almost 20 years of service -- but also because of the shared experience with her fellow soldiers.
Squires said the military has been good to her, but she doesn't want her sons to join because she has seen how hard life can be for enlisted soldiers. She would prefer them to be civilian professionals -- doctors or veterinarians, perhaps.
And she fears that the war on terrorism is far from over.
"That's why I don't want them in the military. I don't think it's going to be done by the time they grow up," she said.
Steve Squires would like to see their sons attend West Point and graduate as officers.
"But that is their choice," he adds. "I would not force them. As long as they're good at something."
The Squires say people often approach them when they're out for dinner to thank them for their service or ask their opinion of the war. At lunch recently, a white-haired gentleman stopped by her table to shake her hand.
"I love the warriors, but I hate the war," he told Squires.
Squires said she believes the United States was warranted in fearing that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and she thinks the American people needed to stand together to send a message of unity to the world. In turn, she thinks, other countries might have been more willing to join the battle.
"I think this war would be different if we had troops from all the countries of the world, and not just mainly us fighting terrorism," Squires said.
While in Iraq she said she was bothered by media reports she could watch on satellite TV that didn't show what she was experiencing -- the gratefulness of the Iraqi people she met.
"Now, it's been five years later, and, on one hand, I really do believe we went over there for a reason," Squires said. "But with as many people and soldiers who are dying, I wish we could come home. I just hate seeing soldiers getting killed."