Carol Haas is shipping out one last time.
by Joan Brasher
Photography by Daniel Dubois
Carol Haas is packing her bags.
She has called the post office to forward her mail and made arrangements with her parents to keep her dog. Essentials like sunscreen, DVDs and a favorite pillow are piled on her bed. But Haas is not going on vacation. The administrative officer in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology is going to Iraq.
A member of the U.S. Army Reserves for the past 23 years who holds the rank of lieutenant colonel, Haas will command a battalion of soldiers guarding a detention facility populated by Iraqi prisoners of war. And she doesn’t seem the least bit worried.
Maybe that’s because this isn’t Haas’ first time to be called up. Or maybe she’s just hard-wired to be a soldier. Since coming to Vanderbilt 17 years ago, Haas has been mobilized four times previously, three of which involved duty in the Middle East during wartime.
“It’s all about being a part of history and taking on the challenge,” Haas said. “It’s about going in and saying, ‘OK, this is what we have got to do, and we are going to do it right.’”
Haas’ introduction to military life began in 1982 at the end of her second year at Motlow State Community College in Tullahoma, Tenn. She received a letter from the ROTC unit at Middle Tennessee State University encouraging her to give the military a try. She said her first thought was, “Yeah, right.” But the offer of a full academic scholarship was enticing. Haas interviewed with recruiters and soon was notified that she had been accepted. By August 1985, she had completed her bachelor’s degree in business administration and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
“The military shows young people they can make something out of their life,” Haas said. “It taught me discipline and integrity, and built up my self-esteem. When I finished basic training, I was like, ‘Wow – I did something that my friends didn’t do. I fired that M-16 and I qualified.’”
Haas came to Vanderbilt in June 1990 to work as a secretary in the Department of Endocrinology and Diabetes. Her son, L.J., was 2 years old at the time. That fall, Operation Desert Shield dominated the world news, and by December Haas was on her way to the Middle East for the first time. Her parents took in little L.J. to live with them, while she spent the next six months working with the 401st Military Police Camp guarding Iraqi prisoners at an enemy prisoner of war camp.
“It was very difficult to leave L.J. during Desert Storm, but I knew he was in good hands with my parents,” Haas said. “I called about twice a month and spoke with him, but balancing being a mom and a soldier was tough. I have a very supportive network of family and friends that have helped me take care of my son when I had drill and annual training, but it is always difficult to leave him.”
Haas returned to her family and her job at Vanderbilt, until deployment came again in 1996. This time the tour was shorter, and it was stateside. She spent four months at Ft. Benning in Columbus, Ga., where she prepared units for duty in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Haas came to the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology as a grants manager in April 1999. Four years later she was called up for active duty again, this time as part of the 346th Military Police Detachment in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. She returned to the states in July 2003, and less than a year later was put on alert again. She returned to Iraq in November 2004 for a year, this time as commander of her unit.
Each time she has been deployed, the university has made sure that when Haas returns to the states she has a job – though not necessarily the same job – as required by law. Her unique situation, she said, requires an extra measure of patience on the part of supervisors and co-workers.
“When I came into my job, my supervisor knew that I was in the reserves and knew that there was the possibility of me being called up. He just didn’t think it would be this often,” she said. “But deployment is just one of the things that is always there.”
Deployment is tough on families, too. Her son L.J., now in college, has come to terms with his mother’s two very different occupations.
“The first time I was deployed, he was really worried,” she said. “Now it is like, ‘OK – Mom has all of these people around her who are going to make sure that nothing happens to her.’ He has a strong faith in God and he is in a fraternity, so the brothers are around him, supporting him. He is OK. He knows it’s part of Mom’s job.”
And now it is time to go again.
Haas isn’t at liberty to say exactly where the prison is located, how many inmates are housed there, or what she expects the conditions to be like. What she can say is that her job will include talking to Iraqi prisoners and listening to their stories.
“I’ll go down and visit with them and talk to them,” she said. “My job is to treat them as human beings, regardless of what they have done. I know they’ve done bad things, but it is not my job to judge them. That’s what they have a court system for. My job is to make sure that they have food, shelter and clothing and that they are treated with dignity and respect.”
Though she’s not sure how long she’ll be separated from her family and friends, she gets a sparkle in her eye when she talks about going back to Iraq. Undeterred by the bickering pundits on cable news shows, provocative bumper stickers and the host of politicians debating a war they haven’t experienced firsthand, Haas is eager to serve her country.
“The public wants to hear about the gore; they don’t want to read a feel-good piece,” she said. “We are doing a lot of good over there. There are engineering units that are building buildings, and the infrastructure is going in. It is just going to take time.”
Having seen the conflict in Iraq, she’s developed a greater appreciation for the word “freedom.”
“Every time I come back, I appreciate America even more,” Haas said. “The ability to drive down the street and not have to go through checkpoints; the ability to go to Wal-Mart and not have to wear body armor and a helmet or worry about something being blown up. The freedom we have here – every time I come back, I just value it even more.”
This trip has special significance, because it represents the end of Haas’ military career – one in which she has accomplished much more than she ever dreamed possible back in 1982 as a college sophomore in Tullahoma.
“When I leave Iraq I’ll have my retirement papers in hand,” she said. “This is the final hurrah – the final leap. I just can’t wait to get over there and serve my country in the best way I can.”
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