Nicole Johnson FP’11 Looks Back on Iraq

Posted: November 6, 2009

Perhaps more than any other Mount Holyoke student, Angela (Nicole) Johnson FP’11 appreciates the peace and quiet of the South Hadley campus. After spending three years in Iraq--one in the army, and two more working for Halliburton--she enjoys being able to sleep at night. “We were living in the Green Zone in containers like long trailers. There were mortars coming in all the time, and car bombs. My family was worried sick; I knew it was time for me to leave.”

It took Johnson a year to adjust to life back in the U.S. “It was difficult. Any time I heard a loud noise, a door slamming or a garbage truck early in the morning, I’d be up out of bed. It took a good year before I didn’t jump at noises, or check my boots for scorpions and spiders. It took a while for those little habits to dissipate.”

Johnson recalled arriving in Iraq for the first time, when the U.S. invaded in 2003. She was the convoy commander’s driver in a fuel unit, and their route took them across a minefield. “If you get hit by an IED (improvised explosive device) or a RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) it’s game over,” she said. “You’re basically driving a big bomb.”

Johnson grew up in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, a small town in the Poconos. After graduating from high school and attending two years at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, she felt the need for a change. “I was young, a screw-up. I wanted to get away from home and do something different. So I did something really different. I joined the army in 2000 and ended up fighting in Iraq.”

Johnson was stationed in Germany in a fuel unit when 9/11 happened. At that point, she and her fellow soldiers knew it was just a matter of time before they would be deployed. “I was 23, my country had been attacked, and I was ready to go,” she said. “But it wasn’t until we got anthrax shots that it really sunk in that we were going to the desert and that we were about to do something we’d never done before.”

At first, Johnson openly questioned why the U.S. was invading Iraq. “I thought we should go to the place where the people who bombed the World Trade Center were from. My squad leader told me, ‘Shut up and pay attention and you’ll make it home alive.’ That was really good advice, probably the best advice he ever gave me.”

Being a female soldier was not an issue for Johnson. “Once you’re out on a mission being attacked, with bombs going off, it really doesn’t matter. There’s not a thought about it. We’re all soldiers, we have our weapons, and we can all shoot and throw grenades. The first time we got attacked our best shooters were women. Some of the male soldiers came over to us afterwards and said, “Thanks. You saved our asses.”

She spent a year in Iraq and came home in 2004 hoping not to be called back to duty. “When you sign on for four years, they can call you back any time within the next four years,” she explained. “I got really lucky. I received many letters from the Army letting me know they hadn’t forgotten about me ... but my time’s up and I can stop worrying.”

Back in Pennsylvania, she earned her commercial driver’s license and intended to go to work driving 18-wheelers. Things didn’t work out that way. While serving in Iraq, she had met a young man who worked as a truck driver for Halliburton, and he’d urged her to get a job with them. “He said, ‘Hey, you might as well earn good money if you’re going to do this.’ That made sense to me.”

When an Army friend from Iraq told Johnson that Halliburton was hiring, she felt destiny was calling her back, and she went to work for them as a truck driver in 2005. “That’s a really dangerous job. Drivers don’t have a long life expectancy. And killing or capturing an American female was a big deal, something the enemy really wanted.” After six months, Halliburton promoted her to a less dangerous post, as a billeting supervisor for U.S. and international troops as well as other civilians living in the Green Zone. “It made my mother and grandmother worry a little less,” she said.

But even in the relative safety of the Green Zone, life in Iraq was stressful. “My office almost got blown up. They blew up the hospital, the dining facilities. They were actively trying to kill us. I guess it wasn’t as bad as it sounds. On a good day, we’d get two or three mortars coming in. On a bad day we had to stay in bunkers and wear Kevlar vests.”

Two years into her stint with Halliburton, Johnson called it quits and headed back to the States. “I was 27, and I didn’t have a college degree. I had spent three birthdays--23, 25, and 26--in Iraq. I wanted to see my family and be like a normal person. Most of all I wanted an education in international relations and politics.”

Johnson stumbled upon Mount Holyoke’s Frances Perkins Program while doing an Internet search. I saw the word “veteran” on the Mount Holyoke site and started reading. I called Kay [Althoff, associate director of the FP program] to get some information. “I hadn’t even considered a school like Mount Holyoke. It never occurred to me that a prestigious woman’s college would want someone like me. I almost didn’t apply. A lot of schools don’t have the resources for vets; I just assumed a private women’s college wouldn’t be interested.”

Although Johnson had applied to and been accepted at other colleges, she chose Mount Holyoke. “There was something special about Mount Holyoke,” she said. “When I came to visit, that sealed the deal for me. I don’t have a great track record at decision making,” she said, smiling. “But this was a good one!”

Related Links:

Frances Perkins Program

Veterans at MHC

International Relations at MHC

Politics at MHC