To Iraq and back

Alexandra Wilcox

On Thanksgiving Day 2005 in Baghdad, army Spc. Erika Illanes had just returned from a feast when her boyfriend and friend stopped her to talk before she headed back to a warehouse where she worked.

A shrilling hum soon caught her attention, causing her to glance up at a rocket aimed at the warehouse a hundred feet from where she stood.

An alarm sounded, and Illanes dropped to the dusty Iraq ground.

The rocket smashed into the warehouse with a deafening boom, shooting off glass and shrapnel all over. Illanes barely escaped injury.

“I would have probably been in the warehouse if they wouldn’t have stopped me,” Illanes said. “It was scary.”

After finishing a one-year tour in Iraq and ending her four-and-a-half-year service to the army three months ago, the City College student has returned to her birth town with a new outlook on life and the Iraq war.

Bumper stickers exclaiming “Bring them home” and garage windows showing typed signs that read, “Not one more death, not one more dollar” spread across Illanes’s home. Illanes is far from supporting American presence in Iraq.

Illanes has brought her activism to campus, participating in peace rallies and protests while trying to enlighten her fellow students on their way to class with her experience in a war zone.

“It seems that me being a veteran and having been in Iraq is a stronger word against the war, but City College students are so wrapped up in school and other things that they can’t comprehend anything else but school,” said Illanes, who served as an automated logistical specialist.

Illanes, also a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace, went to Washington DC and marched to the Pentagon with thousands of other protesters to mark the four-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq on March 17.

Before she was deployed, Illanes explained that she didn’t really question the war.

When stationed in Baghdad, Illanes started to doubt its legitimacy after reading articles her mother sent her and after the Internet was made available to her.

Her only news source was the Armed Forces Network, a military-run television channel.

“Halfway through her tour, she started doing her own research on whether we should be there in the first place,” said her mother, Dinah Mason, who also served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam war.

While stationed in Baghdad, Illanes worked in a warehouse that distributed machine parts for humvees and other equipment to convoys.

“Being exhausted, we couldn’t really think about where we were and what we were doing,” Illanes explained, who wants to become an elementary teacher. “Because we were so busy everyday, it was like, ‘Oh, we forgot we were in Iraq.'”

Illanes enlisted in the army fresh out of high school at the age of 18.

“I was actually kind of scared of college,” Illanes said. “Because I moved around so much, went to so many different high schools, I felt like a didn’t get a good education.”

Mason, who shares her daughter’s anti-war sentiment, was against her joining from the beginning.

“I hated it and tried to talk her out of it and tried to convince her she could go to college,” Mason said. Illanes says she doesn’t regret the experience.

“If I was 18 again, and had all the information I do now, there is a possibility I still would have joined,” Illanes said. “If I hadn’t joined, I wouldn’t have the voice I have now.

“I’m just lucky that I came back and can spread the word.”