Sandra Smith — United States Army — Iraq War — Valencia Resident

U.S. Army Reserve veteran Sandra Smith displays her Warrior Citizen presentation flag for her service. Dan Watson/The Signal
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Sandra Smith loves being a PTA mom, having a good laugh with friends and being a part of her community, as well.

But there’s also privacy to her, a story that’s hinted at with the folded flag proudly displayed on her mantel.

The flag sits encased in glass in the family’s living room, and below the glass, engraved on a metal plaque, reads the name she had in another life: “Spc. Sandra Arevalo-Hernandez, Warrior Citizen.”

The flag sits encased in glass in the family’s living room, and below the glass, engraved on a metal plaque, reads the name she had in another life: “Spc. Sandra Arevalo-Hernandez, Warrior Citizen.”

Smith sits on top of an armored Humvee towards the end of the convoy to Mosul. May 8, 2003. Courtesy photo.

Early life

Smith was born May 19, 1982, in El Salvador to Maria and Ted Arevalo, a homemaker and future manager at a Southern California engineering company.

The oldest of two, with a younger sister named Julie, the Arevalos stayed in El Salvador until the safety of their family and own lives were within the sphere of danger.

“At the time, El Salvador was still at war,” said Smith. “It was not the safest place, and my parents just wanted a better opportunity for their kids.”

At the age of 18 months, the four-person Arevalo family moved to Van Nuys and eventually Chatsworth.

“I was a ‘Valley girl,’” she jokes.

She had met her boyfriend, Ernesto Smith, while working at JCPenney, and they continued to date while she worked and went to school. She decided to enlist in the U.S. Army Reserves on Feb. 2, 2001.

In bootcamp, I was like, ‘I’m reserve, so I don’t really think I’m going to get called up,’” Smith said.

Anyone that has ever turned on the news in America can do the math from Smith’s enlistment date, and realize her plan to not get “called up” wasn’t in the cards, as they say.

“While I was in bootcamp, 9/11 happened,” said Smith. “Immediately, we were told, ‘You will be going to war.’

“It’s not exactly what I signed up for,” she says now with a laugh.

Smith stands in front of the machine gun posts set up at Tal Afar, August 12, 2003. Courtesy photo.

Kuwait and the Convoy

After receiving her training as a laundry and bath specialist, Smith made it nearly two years from her enlistment date before she got the call while she was on her way to the movies with a friend.

“As I’m pulling up to his apartment, I get the call … ‘Raging Bull,’” said Smith. “She says to me, ‘You’ve been activated.’”

And Smith was off.

Touching down in Kuwait in March 2003, she said there were a couple of things that first stuck out to her.

“There was a lot of sand,” said Smith. “And the air strip was short, and I was wondering if the plane was going to make it.”

“I was a scared kid,” she added. “You don’t know what you’re getting into.”

After landing, Smith was ushered onto a bus and taken to an area where she would spend the next few weeks alongside her “battle buddy,’ Martha.

“We were not similar at all, totally different lifestyles,” said Smith. “But when you’re in that situation, it’s something about that that brings you together, and you have that in common. Something so traumatic … a life-or-death situation … it’s such a bond.”

As a laundry and bath specialist, Smith had a number of responsibilities, but most importantly setting up things, such as toilets and showers for soldiers on the front line. And this responsibility would take her, after a few months in Kuwait, into Iraq for the first time.

“We didn’t stay on a base until we got to Mosul, we were constantly moving,” said Smith. “We were following the Marines because they were front line.”

Winding their way through Iraq, the self-described Valley girl witness the devastation a war-torn country faces first-hand. Looking out the window, long stretches of sand were interrupted by abandoned, decimated, vehicles or razed buildings.

“We were seeing everything as we were rolling in, you’re seeing just destruction,” said Smith. “We would stay in some places that had been cleared out by Marines, and we kind of ran into Iraqi pins from their uniforms and different areas … where you saw some kind of combat.”

The convoy did take some fire, but for all intents and purposes she said the trip was “seamless.”

“Just try to stay alive … just try to be safe, try to be alert, always alert,” said Smith of her mindset.

At the end of a month and a few weeks on the road, Smith would arrive in Mosul and then, eventually, 40 miles outside of Mosul in a barren place named Tal Afar.

Smith stands in front of an Iraqi tank that was destroyed and abandoned during the early part of 2003. Courtesy photo

Tal Afar

“It was an abandoned airfield with abandoned bunkers,” said Smith. “We showed up and were shown a piece of cement; they said, ‘This is your home, make it your own.’”

Smith said the first step was to set up a giant plastic tent that would be used for sleeping. Blackhawk helicopters made drop-offs based on what part of the infrastructure the troops were working on that week.

“We started off with MREs, my parents were gracious enough to mail me a lot of cup of noodles, and eventually we got to our soldiers cooking the meals … and eventually, we ended up getting our own very large cafeteria.”

They set up toilets, bathrooms and anything troops would need to support themselves in the midst of the “intense heat.”

“It felt so good to be on pure cement,” said Smith, adding that sleeping directly on cool, shaded cement underneath a 5-ton truck was better than the Army-issued cot underneath the plastic tent. When she did sleep in her bed, she kept a netting around the cot perimeter in order to make sure the rats didn’t crawl on her while she slept.

She said Ernesto, with whom she was still in a relationship, although he was back in the States, would write a letter or send a card everyday. She would receive them and store them away.

“Our original order was for six months, and then we were extended another three months, now it’s nine months, and then we got extended again, and it felt like a constant extension to my orders,” she said. “I was living day-to-day, hoping that one day I would be able to go home.”

After nine months in Tal Afar, Smith was fortunate enough to be selected as a recipient of an “R&R” trip back to Kuwait, and then back home for Christmas.

Before they were able to get home, her unit would suffer its first and only loss of the tour. Her commanding officer, Platoon Sgt. Kelly Bolor, while flying in a Blackhawk helicopter — something Smith said she and her unit were always doing as passengers — another helicopter crashed into his.

“It was a night flight, and the two Blackhawks flew into each other,” said Smith. “He was a very good platoon sergeant, making sure we were all safe. … He was the only person that we lost. He almost made it home.”

As her voice quiets down, Smith added that she was supposed to be on that flight. Bolor had tried to convince her to go because she was due back in Kuwait. But convoy duty had sapped her of all her energy, and she wanted to rest before she hopped on a transport to Kuwait.

When she did finally get home, Smith kept it as a surprise to her parents and family.

“I didn’t tell anyone I was coming home. I just got in a taxi cab at LAX, I had them drop me off a couple houses down, and then I showed up and said, ‘Hi, Mom,’” said Smith. “She had a total breakdown.”

U.S. Army Reserve veteran Sandra Smith March, 2003 in Kuwait. Courtesy photo

‘Home,’ home

Smith would be called back to the Middle East, this time to Kuwait, after her leave. The unit in Iraq, including Martha, had been instructed to tear down and head back home. Their tour was over. Because Smith had not packed her stuff at Tal Afar, including the letters from Ernesto, and they were informed while she was on leave that they were going home, her battle buddy packed up her friend’s stuff for her, and escorted it all the way back to Kuwait.

“She was so gracious to pack all my stuff … she made sure it was on the trucks … the best battle buddy.”

Once returning home, in early 2004, the unit was debriefed in Texas and received mental evaluations.

“It was a bit of adjustment,” said Smith. “I would check the door a million times … I didn’t want to be in crowds … it was an adjustment period.”

On Sept. 9, 2006, Smith and Ernesto would marry after dating since they were teenagers.

U.S. Army Reserve veteran Sandra Smith. Dan Watson/The Signal

On Feb. 2, 2009, on the eight-year anniversary of her enlistment, Smith was honorably discharged from the military as an E-4 Specialist.

She and Ernesto then started their lives together in Santa Clarita, having three boys who now attend Meadows Elementary School. It’s a far cry from fending off the rats, heat and desert conditions under the belly of a truck in a hostile nation.

When asked if she would allow her sons to join the Army, she laughs for a second, thinks about it, and then jokingly says she wouldn’t discourage it, but she wouldn’t encourage it, either.

“I’m selfish,” she admits. “I saw the stress it put on my mom.”

When asked if she would do it again …

“Absolutely.”

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