Fake flames flicker in the hotel’s electric fireplace, and Milonas—an attractive, heavyset woman dressed carefully in a soft corduroy skirt suit, tan cowboy boots and an armful of golden bangles—sits in a satin wing chair and talks about life before wartime.
The third of four children, Milonas grew up near her grandparents’ farm in Yorktown, Virginia. Her father worked in a shipyard, her mother at a naval weapons station. Her late stepfather served in the air force, and one of her sisters, an RN, is an air force captain. Milonas attended college nearby, at historically black Hampton University. “My military career was going to be glamorous,” she recalls with a wry smile. “My big escape, taking me far away from home.” Her first post was Fort Dix, New Jersey.
She seems surprisingly relaxed. But then a loud whirring noise reverberates through the lobby. “I can’t tell where it’s coming from,” Milonas says, her eyes alarmed behind her glasses. It’s only a housekeeper vacuuming a hallway, but hypersensitivity to noise is another symptom of PTSD.
The plan was to make the military her career. Then, at Fort Dix, she met infantryman Kevin Milonas and fell for his green eyes, his smile and the kindness she sensed in him. He’d been married before and had custody of his three kids. “Robin was outgoing and adventurous,” Kevin would later tell me. “She liked to travel and go to events. She had a deep interest in me and what I was going through as a single father, and I found that very fascinating and comforting.”
They married; Kevin was transferred to Fort Lewis, and she got herself reassigned to go with him. The children were still young, and two parents in the military was, she says, “too much.” Kevin was further along—a master sergeant—so rather than re-enlist when her time was up, Robin became a special-ed teacher and joined the reserves. She spent one weekend each month with a transportation unit, preparing for war but never expecting to actually fight one. Then the 1990–91 Gulf War broke out, and Milonas was deployed to the Middle East while her husband remained home with the children for nearly a year. “It crushed his poor little ego,” she says with a laugh.
Milonas had just made major; the second-highest-ranking officer in her unit, she was excited to be taking a group of young soldiers to rebuild the airport in Kuwait. “I enjoyed the adventure, not knowing what was going to happen next,” she says. “There’s that feeling you get, that adrenaline rush.” Her commander was a woman, as was the company training officer. “We felt we were invincible,” Milonas says. “I was successful in my job. I loved the first war.”
As Milonas advanced and was promoted to lieutenant colonel, her duties fell under the Special Forces command, where she was now focused on intelligence and outreach—“winning the hearts and minds of the public,” as she puts it—work that would require her to have close contact with civilians during her next deployment. “I thought it was going to be like the first Gulf War,” she says.
“I didn’t know I was going to be exposed to so much trauma and mutilation.”
AFTER ARRIVING in Afghanistan in January 2004, Milonas was first stationed in Kabul, where she met Karzai and was a liaison to the Minister of Women’s Affairs during the run-up to an International Women’s Day program in March. “It wasn’t until I went to Bagram air base [a few months later] and was at the grassroots level that things began to affect me,” Milonas says.
Pained by the poverty she saw outside the base, she hired locals for jobs on the post and brought children in to earn money helping at a weekend bazaar and to learn Tae Kwon Do at a mini club that troops had organized. She set Kevin—by then retired from the military and working for Boeing—to buying tiny sneakers to send over.