THE POLICE OFFICER saw Robin Milonas, but she didn’t see him. And even if she had, it probably would have made no difference. On that spring evening in 2006, Milonas was driving home in twilight when she spotted a shadow on the road. Though she was in Washington State, thousands of miles from Afghanistan, she instinctively registered the shadow as a land mine, of the sort insurgents plant.
Panicking, Milonas swerved. The officer came after her, lights flashing, and pulled her over to ask if she had been drinking. She hadn’t. She had just left a hair appointment.
After looking at her driver’s license photo, in which she wore the uniform of the U.S. Army Reserves 364th Civil Affairs Brigade, the cop backed off. “I’m just going to give you a warning this time,” he said. “Go straight home and don’t make any stops.
“And take it easy,” he added, waving her along.
Nice of him to say, but this was the third time Milonas had been stopped for erratic driving since returning from her tour in Afghanistan. Taking it easy was no longer an option.
Until recently, Milonas had been living on a constant upward trajectory: ROTC and long-distance running in college, followed by five years in the army, then two decades in the reserves while she juggled marriage (to an army sergeant), motherhood (caring for his three kids from a previous marriage), graduate school (she earned a master’s in education) and careers as a middle school teacher and an adjunct college professor. By the time she landed in Afghanistan in January 2004, she was a much-decorated lieutenant colonel attached to the Special Forces; for a time, she served as her group’s liaison to President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, where he showed her the now bombed-out schools he had attended as a child and told her of his hopes for educating Afghan women.
In the U.S. military, women are still technically barred from serving in most direct-combat roles. But in a report to Congress in March encouraging the removal of the bans, the Military Leadership Diversity Commission noted that these rules are based on standards “associated with conventional warfare and well-defined, linear battlefields. However, the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been anything but conventional.”
Like so many other female soldiers, Milonas witnessed horrific violence, and her own life was often placed in jeopardy. After her posting in Kabul, she was sent to the Bagram airfield, up north, where her job was to convoy gifts of food, household goods and school supplies into the countryside for impoverished villagers, in hopes that they, in turn, would help her gather intelligence about Taliban insurgents. It was dangerous work, but Milonas didn’t acknowledge her fear—to herself or anyone else. “I was good at covering up,” she says. “I had to be. I was an officer with troops to lead.”
Then, after almost a year, Milonas came home.
WE ARE SITTING in the ersatz-Colonial lobby of a Best Western hotel in Puyallup, Washington, a wooded town in the shadow of snowcapped, volcanic Mount Rainier; the famous site is an apt metaphor for this calm--looking woman whose emotions can erupt at any moment. Signs for evacuation routes dot the landscape, but so far there has been no clear exit for Milonas, whose buried trauma began breaking the surface when she returned from her deployment in November 2004.
It should have been a joyful homecoming; instead, gunfire from training exercises at Fort Lewis army base, near where she then lived, sent Milonas diving to the floor, thinking she was hearing the Scud missiles that had rained down on Bagram. Emotionally withdrawn and unable to sleep, Milonas obsessively checked doors and windows to make sure they were locked. She was unable to hug her grandchildren, because they reminded her of the vulnerable Afghan kids she felt guilty for leaving behind.
This was not where Robin Milonas, now 53, expected to be at this stage of her career: struggling to regain her old life, her old self, but mired, like countless other soldiers, in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition twice as likely to affect women as men. “I kept asking, ‘Where’s the pink pill?’ There’s got to be something to make this go away, ” she says.