Conflicts: Iraq War and Pakistan
Rebecca Iacolino transported fuel and ammunition to the front lines. She recalls the terror of having her truck hit by rocket-propelled grenades, the trauma of watching her comrades in a Humvee hit a buried bomb, and the decision to kill.
She was in the Army from March 2000 until August this year. Iacolino served two tours in Iraq and a tour in Pakistan.
In the mountains of Pakistan, she served a six-month humanitarian mission "but that was much more than that. That's all I'm at liberty to say there."
Killing is something Iacolino says she will never be comfortable with. But she did it for her country and her comrades. And to make it home.
"The hardest part about it is being a mother and having to kill the little boy who was trying to kill me. That was really hard. Also, having to kill another woman. It was an Iraqi lady who was probably old enough to be my mother.
"You know of course you are a soldier first. And it's afterwards you think...she could've been my mom. She's the age of my mom. Or that little boy...was somebody's son.
A salute to our veterans
Reporting by Josh Dulaney, Greg Mellen, Christina Villacorte
Photos by David Crane, Sean Hiller and Thomas R. Cordova.
Videos shot by Hans Gutknecht, Jeff Gritchen, Rachel Luna
Online production by Robert Meeks
"It's different when you're at war. You have to do what you have to do because they don't care about killing you. And you have to think about coming back to your family."
-By Josh Dulaney
Click here or on the image to see video interview with Rebecca Iacolino
Residence: Puerto Rico
Conflicts: Operation New Dawn, Iraq
A mortar attack greeted Sergio Lopez on his very first day in Iraq.
He had just arrived at his military base in the volatile province of Kirkuk and was waiting for his room assignment when the sirens started blaring.
"The sirens went off and my entire company shut up - there was silence for a second," Lopez said. "The officers started yelling `Get into the bunkers!' and then we just heard the `boom, boom, boom!"'
Instead of being afraid, however, he felt a rush of adrenaline.
"I was pumped up," Lopez said. "It seemed exhilarating at the time."
The Puerto Rico native arrived in Iraq shortly after the surge and served as a gunner atop an MRAP, a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle.
Lopez said he enlisted despite knowing he would have to go to war.
"I just wanted to feel productive," he said.
Upon their return from the war zone, however, Lopez fell into a depression he still has not recovered from.
"I felt kind of depressed and alone when we came back - everybody in my unit did - and my way of coping was to smoke marijuana."
It led to his being discharged from the service. Lopez is currently undergoing treatment at the VA in West Los Angeles.
- Christina Villacorte
Click here or on the image to see video interview with Sergio Lopez
Anne La Pointe
Branch: Marine Corps
Conflict: Operation Enduring Freedom
Anne La Pointe had just enlisted and was undergoing training in Virginia when terrorists struck on 9/11.
"We were close enough to the Pentagon to smell the smoke in the air," she said, making a gesture that showed a glimpse of the stars-and-stripes tattooed on her forearm.
"From a Marine standpoint, we just wanted our commanding officers to cut our orders to go find whoever was responsible."
She never saw combat but did her part for Operation Enduring Freedom by "making sure everyone got chow" at the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where some of those behind 9/11 were ultimately held.
Her father, who served during the Vietnam War, told her never to underestimate her job.
"There are three things essential to going to war: beans, bullets and Band-Aids," she quoted him saying. "Be damn proud that you're a cook. Every spoke in the wheel makes the wheel go round."
Women are a rarity in the Marines, making up only 7 percent of the 200,000-strong corps.
"There will always be differences between men and women, and those differences should be celebrated," La Pointe said. "And if a woman can do the job, she should be able to."
- Christina Villacorte
Marine Corps 1992-1996
Army National Guard 1996-present
Ironically, when Dalia Sanchez was a gung-ho Marine, the only conflicts she found were in keeping paperwork straight. The Corps she joined for its physical challenges, parked her at a desk.
However, as a member of the National Guard, Sanchez has twice been deployed to war zones.
And as a company commander in Afghanistan, she learned what it really meant to be at war.
Being in charge of convoys that serviced 12 bases around Kabul, and losing one of her men and 17 other soldiers in a suicide bomber attack on one of those convoys, still haunts her.
Sanchez felt responsible for every soldier she sent out and said that while on deployment the work was fast, constant and unrelenting.
"Serving in conflict changes your perspective of serving in general," Sanchez said.
And doing it in a war zone just adds to that.
And while Sanchez is proud to have served she said, "You give a little of yourself away that you can't ever get back. A little of your sense of humanity, I guess."
Diana Pacheco was just a 19-year-old kid enjoying being on a ship outside of Australia, when the orders came and the next thing she knew the Navy was steaming to the Arabian Gulf.
"I didn't know what life was about," she say now says. "It seemed like a normal job to me."
Since her cousin Robert Venegas enlisted in 1994, Pacheco knew she wanted to follow his lead.
Although being at sea during two deployments in the Middle East kept her out of the fray, Pacheco said the Navy taught her lessons she carries today.
"It builds character," Pacheco said. "It was very positive."
Operation Iraqi Freedom
Diaz, a soft-spoken young man, ran convoy missions day and night. He was ejected out of a gunner's hatch when his unit was hit by a roadside bomb.
His injuries included fractured vertebrae and he took shrapnel in his left forearm.
"You hear people say `My whole life flashed before my eyes'. None of that happened to me. I think I just (lay) there in shock and awe. That was my first response. And secondly, I just kinda snapped out of consciousness and remember being in a helicopter the next moment."
Click here or on the image to see video interview with Daniel Diaz
Mundaca served in the Military Police Corps. She holds back tears as she recalls one of her best friends, Master Sgt. Anthony Davis. He was her favorite salsa dance partner. Davis was killed by an Iraqi police officer the U.S. was training.
"That morning...we saw two (helicopters) land. You don't see birds land that fast unless someone is like A. dead or dying or B. the bird is having malfunctions or something.
"I remember seeing those birds land and the words that came out of my mouth were `I feel sorry for the poor bastard who just landed, because I bet you he's dead.' I didn't realize who it was.
"But when I found out it was him, I was just devastated, you know. He was an awesome, awesome, awesome leader."
Click here or on the image to see video interview with Grace Mundaca