Dummerston soldier returns from Afghanistan

DUMMERSTON -- For a soldier just home from a year in a war zone, even a trip to the grocery store is special.

That's why Lt. Col. Christie Turner, a longtime Army Reservist who returned in late May from Afghanistan, found herself overwhelmed when her husband, Godfrey Renaud, drove her to Price Chopper.

"I'm in the aisles, and he sees this tear coming down my face, and he says, 'Are you OK?,'" the Dummerston resident recalled. "I said, 'I am so overjoyed. I cannot believe all these choices.'"

Having finished her deployment as a logistics officer, Turner has returned to resume life as a mother, wife and small-business owner. Things are pretty much as she left them at home in the hills of Dummerston, but Turner considers herself a changed person -- more humble and more appreciative of simple blessings.

"I think it's afforded me some very, very worthy life lessons," Turner said. "I know what's important now. I know what's not important now. Absolutely, I feel like a better person for that experience."

Turner and her husband have a long-term commitment to this area as the owners and operators of Turner & Renaud Inc. Tree Service and Landscaping in Dummerston for the past 27 years.

But Turner's commitment to the Army Reserve is even longer: She has served for more than 29 years, and, until recently, she belonged to the United States European Central Command based in Stuttgart, Germany.

For her deployment in early 2013, however, Turner was reassigned to U.S. Central Command, which covers 20 countries including Iraq and Afghanistan. Turner received her orders at the end of December 2012, and she departed for training at Fort Dix in New Jersey less than a month later.

She takes a soldier's matter-of-fact view of that dramatic and sudden shift in circumstances.

"I didn't go over with a battalion. I didn't go over with a brigade. I didn't go over with a company. I went over as an individual," Turner said. "They just looked at my skill set and said, 'We can use you over here,' and I said, 'Great. I'm there.'"

At Fort Dix, she was one of a group of 27 who were training for Middle East deployment. Four members of that group, including Turner, were headed for Afghanistan; the remainder were going to Kuwait.

On her blog, http://christie.csrworld.com -- which became an important method of communication while Turner was overseas -- she described the 12-day journey from Fort Dix to NKC (New Kabul Compound) this way:

"I liked the freedom of moving around, figuring out how to get from plane, bus or helicopter place to place. The real challenge was asking a complete stranger at odd hours each night or early morning to help me carry one of my four duffel bags. I took a genuine interest in people; listening to their experiences, some who had arrived recently like myself, others nearing the end of the tour, others leaving or coming back from R&R, either way, excited about reunion with families."

She added that one stop was "hell" -- a spot where, "two days earlier, aircraft were damaged on the very runway (where) I landed," and "while there, I had one day of indirect fire close to where I was staying."

"Not saying that bothered me," Turner wrote. "What did bother me was not being able to tell who was friendly and who hated you. Ironically, they all carry a gun (except the locals who cook our meals and clean our buildings)."

In Kabul, Afghanistan, Turner had an important job featuring what some might see as conflicting duties: She was tasked with equipping troops coming into the theater while also fulfilling a mandate to downsize U.S. forces.

For Turner, the mission was a balancing act between ensuring that soldiers had what exactly they needed but weren't bringing in excess equipment.

"The logistics in Afghanistan is like getting your doctorate, because you're working in a landlocked country the size of Texas," she said. "And you have to retrograde out of Afghanistan ... and we had a time limit."

"We had a little motto: 'We can, and we will,'" Turner added. "And that's the motto we lived by in order to meet all the logistics commands."

Working conditions, as befitting a war zone, were tight and harsh. Turner slept about 150 steps from where she worked, in a fortified building within a small compound.

But she knew the situation was much worse outside those walls.

"If I was just doing my job in the office, in that fortified building, it was safe," Turner said. "As soon as you walk outside, you don't know if an Afghan is going to shoot you. You don't know if an IED (improvised explosive device) is going to go off. You don't know anything."

Turner did travel outside occasionally in what she calls "battlefield circulation," and she recalls the intensity of travel in military convoys. Sitting at a table in her Dummerston home, with birds chirping outside and Black Mountain occupying most of the horizon, Turner turns serious as she points to a pocket on the arm of her uniform.

"This uniform tells you. You have your tourniquet on your right arm," she said. "You don't put it in your leg pocket. There's a study. We read it. It goes on the right arm. Legs are more likely to be blasted off. That's why it goes on the right arm."

She points to her other sleeve.

"You have your blood type right on your sleeve," Turner said. "There's a reason you have all that. Because every time you go outside that gate, you're susceptible."

Turner worked seven days a week, with long hours. But there were some opportunities for distraction -- taking a moment to enjoy some early morning coffee and a newspaper from home, or engaging in regular hockey games.

One blog entry, titled "Street Hockey," shows a smiling Turner, dressed in camouflage uniform, holding her hockey stick.

"My husband breathed a little life back into me when he sent my hockey stick to Kabul," Turner wrote. "You may know the Canadians are one of our coalition partners, and wherever there are Canadians, there is hockey! Mix that with a few American states beginning with "M" (and "V"), and you have the makings of competitive street-hockey teams."

Turner said she found her work in Afghanistan challenging but exciting: Put simply, she says, "I loved my job." But she also loves her husband, her children and her home, and a year spent far away -- with only a short trip back to the states during deployment -- was difficult.

While technology has greatly improved the ability of soldiers to connect with their loved ones, Turner said logistics still hinder attempts to have meaningful conversations with those back home.

"You can only get these little tidbits of information, but you have no chance of influencing them. You don't have time. All you're thinking about is how to survive -- how to get home safe to your family," she said.

Turner recalls that, "one time, Godfrey and I, I think it took us three weeks to continue and finish a conversation. And we were so frustrated in the interim that we actually just stopped for a couple of days because it was so difficult."

She added with a laugh: "My writing skills have increased."

Laughter was in short supply in Afghanistan. Turner finally returned to the U.S. in January and was back in Vermont by the end of May, but she still is readjusting to a life where laughter is an allowable luxury and danger does not lurk around every corner.

Reading a book -- or even finding her way around the place and the job she knows so well -- has required a major adjustment in Turner's approach to daily life.

"When I got back, I didn't even know where Middle Road was," she said. "You have to rewire your brain away from those intense survival skills and back to the things that you liked and enjoyed."

She is thankful for the Turner and Renaud employees who helped keep the family business going in her absence.

"I had no warning. I just walked away from being self-employed," Turner said. "People just stepped up. I don't know what I would have done without those people."

And she is most-thankful for her own family. Having been reunited with those she loves, Turner has a deeper appreciation for the struggles and the endurance of military families.

"It's a true hardship on the family that's left behind. It's really challenging. And that, I think, was the hardest thing for me," she said.

"The hardship they endure is more than people can ever realize. If you know a family who has someone deployed overseas, all you have to do is go up to them and say, 'Hi, how are you doing? Thank you very much for your wife -- or your husband, your son, your daughter, your uncle, your aunt -- for serving. I appreciate it,'" Turner said. "That's all you have to say. And you have given them the biggest Christmas gift ... that you could possibly ever give a family."


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