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Two women reflect on service during ‘War on Terror’

By Carlienne A. Frisch

More than 40,000 Minnesotans fought in the Middle East in the “War on Terror,” including two women from Le Sueur County—Melissa Disney and Sarah White. Disney served on a Naval aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, providing protection to U.S. ground troops... and White was one of those soldiers. Both women took part in the decades-long military campaign that began in response to terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001.

Melissa (Hawkins) Disney, Petty Officer Second Class (E5). Contributed photo

Disney chose the U.S. Navy because, while growing up in Montgomery and Le Sueur, she wanted to see the world, as her father had done while serving in the Navy. So, less than a year after graduating from Le Sueur - Henderson High School, she left for basic training (boot camp) at Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois. She received additional training in Pensacola, Fla., as an aviation boatswain mate and handler, and then reported to the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy in Mayport, Fla. in May 2004. The ship sailed for the Persian Gulf, where the crew assisted with all air operations that helped support U.S. ground troops.

Disney’s responsibilities grew when she reported to her second ship, the USS Ronald Reagan, in 2007, and earned her Yellowshirt designation. She was assigned to the Hangar Bay, where she assisted in spotting and securing aircraft, and she was responsible for operating and maintaining the ground-handling equipment used for moving aircraft, as well as damage control duties.

“I learned to operate heavy equipment and aircraft carrier elevators, which transported aircraft from the hangar bay to the flight deck,” Disney said. “While serving on my second ship, I was deployed back to the Persian Gulf, providing air support for the ground support in 2008, 2009 and 2011. During my tour on my second ship, I was advanced to Petty Officer Second Class (E-5).”

Several years before Disney was stationed in the Persian Gulf, Sarah White was part of those ground troops. White, who had moved from Webster to New Prague at age 16, graduated from New Prague High School in 1998. She studied photography and computer networking at Hennepin Technical College in Eden Prairie and got married. She and her husband, Kristian, who was in the U.S. Army reserves, went on active duty together in March 2001.

Melissa Disney in her Navy “dress whites.” Contributed photo

“After basic training and specialized training in military police at Fort Leonardwood, Mo., I was stationed in Giessen, Germany, and Kristian was stationed at a nearby camp.” she said. “We lived in Army base housing. In spring 2005, we both were deployed to Iraq—on opposite sides of the Tigris River. I got to go see him once, but he would come and see me.”

White and her husband both came under fire and both had IEDs (improvised explosive devices) explode near them during their missions.

“The Iraqis and insurgents buried IEDs in the ground," she said. “Once, when I was driving an armored security vehicle, an IED exploded right on my driver’s side. The explosion damaged the vehicle, but I was not injured. Another time, I was driving an armored security vehicle and got gashes and cuts in the armor from a 40 mm. mortar round.”

White’s worst experience? She said, “In Abu Ghraib, the day another platoon of us—soldiers in my unit—were seriously injured by a mortar attack, and one was killed.”

The basics—food and shelter—were inconsistent. White explained, “The first few months, we slept on floors of abandoned buildings or in vehicles when in transport. We had cots in Baghdad. Our meals were MRE (Meals Read to Eat)--packages of spaghetti and other pasta, various meats, brownie mix, some cheese and crackers or peanut butter. It depended on which pack you were lucky enough to get.”

Sarah and Kristian White joined active duty in the U.S. Army in the spring of 2001, just months before the Sept. 11 attack. Contributed photo

On Feb. 28, 2004, just short of serving a year in combat, White was stationed again in Germany. Soon after, her husband also returned to Germany. There, they took part in re-integration sessions not related to combat, which also were provided at her next posting at Fort Sill, Okla. As for the stress of having been in combat, White advised, “Get help from counselors. Get treatment at a medical center on base or, after returning home, from the Veterans’ Administration. Don’t put it off. Talk with other veterans who know what you’re going through. One of our officers was killed by a sniper on his second deployment. We had quite a few casualties in our brigade, and quite a few soldiers were injured and sent home. Survivor’s guilt is very common.”

White, who now lives in Elk River, received her discharge from the Army on Dec. 4, 2008. Her husband, who received medical retirement in 2005, works with information technology for the Veterans Administration. Sarah currently works with the Veterans’ Benefits Administration and is still in contact with several soldiers who served with her in Iraq.

Disney, who lives in Kilkenny, has continued her military involvement by serving in the U.S. Navy Reserves. She noted that during the time she served on the deck of the USS John F. Kennedy, no aircraft of any other country got close to them.

Sarah White stands on the rooftop of the building she and other soldiers lived in. It was located across from Saddam’s parade grounds. Contributed photo

“There was a fishing boat in the area that got close to us, but no other ship, and no planes,” she said. “In my opinion, I didn’t see combat, but what I was a part of in the Navy assisted our ground troops.”

Onboard the aircraft carrier, Disney worked on the flight deck, assisting in launching and recovery for air operations. (Recovery is the landing of the plane on the flight deck.) She explained that during that time, she helped chain down the planes—a stepping stone in her military career. As she gained more experience over time, she was assigned more responsibility.

Disney returned to Florida in December 2004 and remained on active duty until January 2018, serving on two more aircraft carriers and is now a Petty Officer First Class (E-6). As a reservist with a Navy Cargo Handling Battalion, she assists with logistical, supply and cargo operations. Being two years away from retirement, she plans to re-enlist in November and hopes to be advanced to Chief Petty Officer (E-7).

She said, “I’ve been on many deployments and to many countries, and I wouldn’t change any of it. I’ve met a lot of great people along the way.”

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