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Maryanna Brunkhorst is a veteran from Boulder.
Maryanna Brunkhorst is a veteran from Boulder.
Courtesy of 5280 High School

Memorial Day 2019: Meet Iraq War Vet Maryanna Brunkhorst

5280 High School is a project-based learning school in Denver; during project-based learning, students do the real-world work of professionals. In the case of “Sharing Their Stories,” it was the work of journalists. For this project, students in Cody Miller’s ninth-grade humanities class interviewed and photographed veterans to capture their experiences and share them for Memorial Day.

On May 2, students Lloyd Harris, Liam Olson, Elijah Currans and Karina Lopez spoke with Maryanna Brunkhorst, a veteran from Boulder who served as a C-130 navigator in the USAF during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom from May 2001 to March 2008.

After getting out of the military, Brunkhorst turned her writing hobby into published poems, which are featured in Still Coming Home, an anthology written by Denver veterans. This is part of Brunkhorst's story.

5280 High School: What point did you want to make with your poems?

Maryanna Brunkhorst: Each one is a little bit different. I knew we were putting together that anthology. I wanted to come up with something, and I was trying to find a way to encapsulate my experience as a veteran. The first one, “Metal,” kind of came from looking at the fact that no soldier ever comes back exactly the same as when they left. I just wanted to capture that sense of transition, and sometimes we can't quite forget what has happened, which can be sad.

“Honor” came out of a place of wanting to honor the people who have been lost in war, killed in war. I worked with a group of "survivors" — that's what the military calls anyone whose partner has died, instead of widow or widower — a few years back and tried to give them a chance to heal, so I led an expressive writing workshop. That was kind of my ode to them, and I wanted to try to capture what it’s like when you lose someone and how hard that can be for someone.

“Next” was totally different and just came out of when I was reading through a journal that I had and the question was “What are you waiting for?" For that one, I was just playing with words and ended up loving the way that it came out. I wanted to show that there is still hope when things get rough.

Then “Eraser.” One of my writing companions asked if I had ever had anything happen in the military as a woman that was probably not super-ideal, and that's where "Eraser" came from. That is my story from a time when I was a bit discriminated against because I was a woman.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Evergreen, grew up in Boulder.

Growing up, what did you do before the military?

When I was in school, I was really involved in music and sports. I played instruments in band, sang in choir, and I played soccer and swam in high school. Before I joined the military I actually went off to college near Chicago and wasn't planning on joining the military at all until someone walked into one of my classes freshman year wearing Air Force blues. That changed it a little.

Did you want to join the military?

I didn’t necessarily not want to join the military. My grandfather was actually in both world wars and survived them, and my dad survived the military, so there was military in my family. I think I looked up to my mom more than my dad — she was a musician and a teacher — and I just thought, and still think, she was the best human being. It’s kind of funny how I joined the military and followed in my dad’s footsteps.

Was there ever a time when you wanted to be something other than a member of the military?

Yeah, that’s part of why I got out. I enjoyed my time in the military, but I wanted a chance to get out and do something different. I wanted to either teach or work with people from different countries. I chose to get out after seven years and went back to school so I could do that.

Why did you choose the Air Force?

I went into it because I wanted to fly, and I knew that the Air Force would teach me how to fly, kind of. I was a navigator, so I got to be on the planes. I didn’t get a pilot’s slot doing ROTC, but I wanted to fly and I wanted to see the world, and that’s honestly why I went in. I went in May 9, 2001, before 9/11 happened, so I knew I would be a flier. I knew there was a chance I could be going to war, but I didn’t think it would really happen until it did. At the time it just happened; it was just what everybody did. I was surrounded by other people in the military, and there was no reason to really be concerned or anything. It was like, “Well, here we are, you made your choice, follow through.”

Were you excited or anxious?

I wouldn't say excited. I was excited to fly. I hate war. I’ve always hated war, even in the military. Honestly, when I first heard we were going to war, it broke my heart. I was dating someone who was a bomber navigator, and he actually was on the plane that dropped the first bombs in Iraq when we started Operation Iraqi Freedom. I got on the phone with him, and he was like, “Hey, babe, I got to drop bombs,” and I just bawled. I lost it. I hated war. Once I was excited about it; I saw it as a challenge. And I was excited about meeting the challenge.

Where were you stationed?

I spent two years in Japan, which was super-cool because I got to see a lot of Asia that I never thought I would see, like the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia and even Myanmar, which was Burma at the time. I got to see a lot of the world that way. Then I spent about a year total stationed in Croatia flying all over Iraq.

What was basic training like?

Because I did ROTC, I was in training when I was in college. I went through officer basic training instead of enlisted. I spent five weeks in Louisiana in the middle of the summer in August, which was hot and kind of awful. Because it was really hot, we’d get up and do a lot of physical activities first thing in the morning, five o'clock, and spend a lot time in classrooms learning about being officers and about the history of the Air Force. Then we spent a lot of time marching and doing command and control exercises. It was busy, it was hard, there were long days. But it wasn't actually as hard as I thought it would be.

What was your first mission like?

My first mission by myself, I flew from Japan to the Philippines and then Thailand. I was really nervous because I wanted to make sure I was going to do everything right. One of my jobs as a navigator when we’re flying over water is to make sure we don’t run out of fuel. It’s a lot of math, and I was still trying to figure out how to make the math work. I was really scared I was going to screw something up. And then being there was really neat because Thailand and the Philippines were both brand-new countries to me; I had never been there before. I was just fascinated by the people and seeing what it looked like. In some ways it seemed like a super-fun trip. We worked, but while we were there we had a day or two in a country where we were relaxing and just seeing it. My first combat mission was different; I was very nervous for that one.

Did you stay in touch with your loved ones?

Yeah, I did. Not as frequently as now, because it was harder to get international phone calls from Japan, but I did. My parents actually came to visit me in Japan, which was pretty cool, because my family had never really been out of the States before. And then when I was in Croatia, same thing. We were able to talk once or twice a week. There’s a fifteen-hour time difference, so it was a little hard.

Did you think about the impact it had on your family?

I did. My mother hated the idea that her daughter was in the military. And I didn’t realize it would be an issue for her, because my father was in the military and my grandfather was in the military. When I was in college and I told them I was going to join ROTC, my mom would not talk to me about military life for three years. We could talk about everything else, but she’s like, “I don't want to hear about it.” I knew she was very worried, so that’s why I tried to stay in touch with them as much as I could. While I was deployed, I would check in to say, “Hey, I’m fine. Love you guys, things are okay.” My mom had a hard time with it.

Did you bring anything home from those countries?

Quite a bit, actually. I lived in Japan for two years, and we had to live in a home there. So I used Japanese furniture and things to furnish it. In Croatia we were on base, deployed all the time. But they would usually have a bazaar on base where a lot of the local merchants would come, so I have a couple of scarves. I have a chess set I got while I was over there; that's probably most of it. I love fabrics and hangings, so I have some artwork from all the places I've been

Did you keep a diary or journal your experiences?

I did. I didn’t keep it every day, but I’ve kept a journal since I was sixteen. Someone in high school told me to write when I felt like it, so I wrote off and on during my time in the military, especially when I was deployed. I didn’t write as much when I was in Japan because I was super-busy, but I wrote a lot when I was deployed.

What are some of your memorable experiences?

Gosh, there’s lots of them. I remember that same first trip that I went to the Philippines. One of the nights we were off, we had landed and we weren’t flying for the next day. We went to some bars, and I met a ton of young girls from the Philippines. In Asia they have hostess bars, which are a little sketch, I found out later. I was the only girl on my crew, so it was like seven guys plus me. And then no one else was there because it was a Tuesday night, so all the girls were sitting around the table.

They were like, “Oh, my gosh, we’ve never met an American woman before! We thought they all hated us, but you’re so nice.” And it was just such a gift to hear their stories, talk to them and see where they were coming from. Then, when I was in Croatia, there was one night we were flying back from a mission and were wearing night-vision goggles. We were on our way back out and we were up high, so we didn’t have to worry too much about being shot at. Half the crew was falling asleep because it was really late and it had been a super-long day. I remember looking out the window through my NVG goggles and just being amazed at how many stars there were and how incredible it was being over the ground and removed from all the chaos on the ground. It was super-peaceful, and a picture that I’ve kept in my mind ever since. A lot of my memorable experiences are from the people in the places that I got to meet because of the military.

Was there ever a time when you felt hopeless?

For myself? No. Hopeless about whether we should have been there in the first place and if the war was really the right thing to do? Yeah, definitely, especially toward the end of my deployment. It was just really hard to see the reasons for it. Even though we are going and trying to provide freedom for these people, at the same time so many people were getting killed. One of our missions was flying HRs, which are people who have been killed. We would fly the bodies back home. Anytime we did that, we always had a really serious ceremony when we loaded it onto the plane and took it off the plane. I almost always had to fight back tears because it was so sad to me. That was always hard. That’s about the closest I came to being hopeless. It was just like, why are we doing this? Why are we still fighting so much?

What drove you to keep going?

My commitment. I had committed to being there, I committed to help my buddies out. When you’re on the plane, I die two seconds later than anybody else if I screw up. So that made me want to do the best I could to make sure that we kept everybody safe while we were there. What kept me going was knowing that it was the six or seven people who were on the plane with me or the guys who were flying in the back with us. That was what we had to do, so I had to do my job as well as I could.

What effect did it have on your mental health?

I was protected a lot. I've worked with and met a lot of veterans since then who’ve had much harder times than I did. Because I was a flier, I was removed from a lot of chaos on the ground. I saw it when we were taking wounded soldiers back. I saw it when we were taking human remains back. It was hard, and there’s definitely a lot of “don’t talk about it” that goes on. Because I journaled, I think I helped myself a lot because I always had a way to write about it. But, especially being a woman, it was like, “Don’t ever show emotion, don’t ever show weakness." "Suck it up, you can do it." And it’s been hard for me to let myself feel coming out of the military after that. I didn’t experience PTSD or anything like that.

Was there any time during your service when you had time to yourself?

Quite a bit, actually. When I was in Japan, it was just like I was living here. I’m on when I’m working, and as a flier we are technically on call 24 hours a day. They also had rules, like you need to know twelve hours before you fly, otherwise you’re not safe to fly. I always kinda knew what my schedule was. If I wasn’t flying, I was working in the squadron, which was Monday through Friday, 7:30 to 4:30. There was a lot of time you could be on your own. In Japan, one of my favorite things to do was go for long walks or even go rollerblading on the river. And it was just so nice to get out and be away from it and just pretend like I was just a regular human being living in another country. Then in deployment, similarly we were on for 24 hours and then off for 24 hours. On those days off, you’re still on base. There’s nowhere you can go. But you could find somewhere, like in your bunk or the library or something.

How old were you when you joined the military?

I was 22 when I commissioned, but I started ROTC when I was nineteen.

Do you remember the day your service ended?

Yes, I do. My service ended in March 2008. It’s not a retirement ceremony because I wasn’t retiring, but they did have a small ceremony where my commander gave me my awards. Military is big on awards, you get lots of awards for different things. It was my last day wearing blues. I went in, saluted to the commander, who said, “Thank you for your service.” My parents had come up, so they were there for that, which was pretty cool, because they had never seen a lot of the military part of my life. After that, I packed up my stuff and moved back to Colorado.

Did you get a job or go back to school after you were done?

I had applied to school, but I had about three months in between getting out and going back to school. I intended to get a part-time job, but my dad had heart surgery. I spent those three months helping coach him back to health and taking care of him. I lived with my folks for the summer and was like a stay at home nurse/caretaker for my father. And then I went back and started school in August 2008, so I went back to school pretty quick.

Did you make any friends during service that you've kept in touch with?

Yeah, definitely. Two of my best friends are currently stationed in Europe. One got out before I did, went back to school and then went back in as an officer. She’s a nurse over in Germany. And the other one is getting close to retiring, so she’s almost got her twenty years, and she's working for NATO over in Europe, so she’s pretty high up there, which has been fun, following her life. Then a couple other friends of mine got out and moved back here. I’ve got one buddy who flies for United now, so I catch up with him every now and then. I have lots of great friends who I’ve kept in touch with. Most of them are scattered all over the world, though.

Out of everywhere you’ve been in the world, what was your favorite place?

I would go back to Japan in a heartbeat and live there again. I think I would go to a different part of Japan than where I was, in the northern suburbs of Tokyo. It was great, but I want to see a different part of Japan. Japan is a gorgeous country and the people are super-friendly. It was just such a neat experience to be over there.

How did you cope with and overcome challenges?

Writing helped a lot. I look at some of my journals from that time, and it’s like, oh, my gosh, I was complaining a lot. But writing was a way to get rid of it and move past it. My girlfriends in the Air Force were awesome. Obviously I was friends with the guys, too, but most squadrons I was in, there were very few women. One of my friends, if they had a really rough, awful day, I would be like, “Hey, Jen, let’s get together, I need someone to talk to.” I was really blessed in that I had really awesome girlfriends that would also help out if things were rough.

How long did it take for you to be more open about your experiences?

Probably about five years. It wasn’t so much that I was against talking about it, but I just wasn’t really sure how to talk about it. And some people didn’t want to hear it. There’s still stuff that, especially since writing my poems and so on, that my parents are like, "Oh, my gosh, we had no idea!” And I’ve been out now for ten years! So it took a long time. You learn to find the people who actually want to hear about it, and the people who don’t.

How did going into service affect your life?

It completely changed it. Gosh, I don’t even know in how many different ways. I don’t know where my life would be if I had not joined the service, partly because I joined while I was in college. I have a college degree that I never used because it was in media communication, but I knew that I was gonna fly, so I didn’t have to worry about trying to get a job that way. Having to be the only girl in a male squadron, I learned how to be very strong and very independent — maybe too independent sometimes. Getting to live in so many different places around the world completely changed how I viewed other people; I love meeting people from other countries. Before I went in, I was open to it but I didn’t really know how to interact with people. It definitely had a huge impact on my life.

If you could change one thing about any of your military career, what would it be?

If I would have stayed in, I would have looked at cross-training into something else. They have what they call foreign area officers where you basically become the expert in another country and you’re often working with other country’s air forces. If I had stayed in, I would have done that. I don’t regret getting out at all, but there’s some times, especially when I talk to my friends who are colonels now, and I’m like, "Hmm, where would I be if I had stayed in?” That would probably be what I would change, just go back in and cross-train.

Is there anything you’d like to add that we haven’t already talked about?

We have talked about a lot of stuff. I will say again, my experience was different from a lot of people, because I was a flyer and I was an officer. Both of those things in some ways gave me more of a positive experience than other people had because I was removed from a lot of it. I mean, I was still flying in combat, I have the medals to prove it. But it was different, because I always knew I was flying in and I was flying home. I think it’s really awesome that you guys are doing this project, but every veteran’s story is totally different and every veteran’s story has something of value in it. Part of why I didn’t talk about it for five years is because I thought, “I am not a good enough veteran; my experience was too easy.” But it’s still part of who I am.

Watch for other interviews by the students of 5280 High School with local veterans over Memorial Day weekend.

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