One of the first skills I learned in the Army was how to shine my black leather boots, though my boot-shining abilities were mediocre at best. Boots are the workhorse of a soldier’s equipment. We say “boots on the ground” to refer to infantry forces who have arrived in some far-off land. Though I didn’t show my boots the most ultimate respect keeping them clean and polished, I do honor what my boots did for me. I wore my boots through the most challenging periods of my Army life—challenges that formed me as a person and gave me the strength to endure whatever else life has handed me.
I served in the Army as a helicopter pilot. Some might think that as a pilot I was far removed from the gritty violence of ground forces, but that is not so. Even before I was an Army officer, my dull boots carried me through a painful first ruck march as part of my ROTC training. The bottoms of my feet burned against the cushioning of my boot insoles as I trekked mile after mile over the hot asphalt. My boots’ black leather cut into my feet, and as I walked, my blisters developed blisters. My boots carried me through other ruck marches, all of which I hated, but finishing them always made me feel accomplished. My boots carried me through flight school, where I learned the finer points of combat flight. I can still feel the round hardness of the helicopter’s metal pedals as the balls of my feet, encased in the bulky boots, struggled to input the perfect amount of force to keep the helicopter from spinning out of control. After hundreds of flight hours of trial and error and many retorts from impatient Instructor Pilots, I eventually learned how to keep the helicopter under control, through my boots.
When I arrived in Iraq, I graduated from those black leather boots to the more comfortable combat desert boots. I can still feel my boots as they sank into the soft fine sand of Iraqi Kurdistan. I can feel the heavy mud that stuck to the bottom of my boots during the rainy season, making my boots feel like platform shoes. My boots carried me through the streets of Irbil, Iraq where local Kurds often shouted, “We love America,” even as I doubted the importance of our presence there. My boots cushioned my body as I developed nerve pain in my left leg, a pain that became so intense that I cried constantly during my last month in Iraq. And the most challenging experience of all—I can still feel how the thin armored floor of my Humvee rested against the bottom of my boots, and how my feet inside felt frozen with fear as an IED exploded between our two vehicles traveling from Mosul to Irbil.
Today I wear figurative boots as I deal with the aftermath of my experiences in Iraq, including a diagnosis of PTSD. The nightmares and nervousness in public still plague me, even eleven years later. When I think of my boots in the Army, they make me feel like a tough soldier, rather than a broken woman. Empowered by memories of my boots, I now walk with authority as I trample PTSD. My boots remind me of all the experiences I had in the Army, good and bad, failures and successes. They remind me of all the challenges that I have conquered. They remind me that once, I did something exceptional.
Darisse Smith is a Literary Journalism major at UC Irvine working on a second Bachelor’s degree. She served in the U.S. Army for seven years as a helicopter pilot, and served in Iraq from 2005-2006. She lives with her husband, Jeff, and six-year-old son, Devin, in Yucaipa, CA.