Oak Ridge grad turned Army sergeant comes home
Blair Neelands is a sergeant in the United States Army. She has been stationed in Afghanistan for the past 10 months but got two weeks of R&R just after Christmas and came home to spend it with family in El Dorado County.
A 2008 graduate of Oak Ridge High School, Neelands actually joined the Army a year earlier through the delayed-entry program and completed basic training during the summer before her senior year. Hardly anyone outside her immediate family knew what she had done. She was guaranteed the military specialty she wanted, which was journalism and photojournalism; otherwise, she would not have joined up, she said.
Sgt. Neelands came in to the Mountain Democrat/Village Life offices Jan. 12 to share her story and her experiences.
“The military was always in the back of my mind,” she said, noting that there was not a particularly strong family history other than a grandfather and an uncle who had served. “But we used to go to Vandenburg Air Force Base all the time when we lived in Southern California. Seeing the people in uniform was cool, but I didn’t want to go kicking in doors. I was very interested in some of the other fields that are available.”
So, while she knows how to shoot an Army weapon, most of her shooting is done behind a camera, and the results mostly go into unit newsletters. A major coup was getting one of her photos printed in ” Stars and Stripes,” the all-services publication. She also creates stories to be translated into Dari for the local Afghan newspapers. She is in the North Regional Command, 10th Mountain Division, 1st Brigade Combat Team. The unit has more than 3,500 troops at its central base, a camp named for Mike Spann. Spann was the CIA officer killed by Taliban prisoners during an uprising in Masar a Sharif very early in the war.
“There’s no such thing as a typical day for me,” she said. “One day, I’ll do a story on an infantry patrol, and then I’ll do specialty stories like one on the Army cooks. There are always stories to tell. A big part of our mission is to partner with the Afghan National Police and the National Border Police. We try to walk through the markets and bazaars as often as we can and try to make friends with the local merchants. We don’t have much official contact with the locals, so those little interactions are beneficial. It’s important to show respect and say a few words in their language like to the watermelon guy in one small village we’d go through every day and buy a pomegranate or some other piece of fruit.”
Neelands described her role in a typical infantry patrol mission.
“The 10th Mountain is basically light infantry. We don’t have tanks or Strykers, and we ride to a combat outpost and then patrol on foot. A platoon may be 10 or 15 soldiers, and they bring me and maybe an ‘intel guy.’ My job is to document the mission – and to make the unit look good, without losing my journalistic integrity. By no means am I propaganda. I report the truth.”
A combat patrol may last up to a week, and as the only woman, she said she gets to sleep in one of the transport vehicles, and the guys might give her an extra coat or blanket.
“Sometimes being a girl helps, but I try not to take advantage of it, and I don’t want to be a burden,” she said.
Neelands has experienced combat including firefights with small arms, direct and indirect mortar fire. She takes photos for evidence needed by intelligence officers and Afghan interpreters. Asked if she has seen and documented some horrible things, Neelands replied with a quiet, “Yes.”
Neelands and her unit had trained extensively for service in Iraq before the deployment. And they were one of the last to be re-routed to “Afghanistan as part of President Obama’s surge.”
“We’re still training for Afghanistan,” she said with a laugh. “I’m glad to have had this opportunity. I actually get to see the training and partnerships developing. I wrote some stories on the first Afghan female officer training school and gave media training presentations. Many of the girls spoke perfect English. A lot of them won’t finish the program, and most of those who do will probably work in Kabul. It’s very dangerous for them.”
As a kid who didn’t play organized sports or take group showers in school, Neelands described her early experiences in communal living, sharing facilities with dozens if not hundreds of other women as a “shock, but it’s not so bad now.”
She lives with other female soldiers in a large “Alaskan tent” that has 20 bunks on each side, one above the other. It’s not as crowded as she has lived in other posts, and with no bunkmate, she has the bunk above to store her gear.
“We had to build our bunks and an office from available materials. We had wood for the bunks, but we’ve just picked up whatever we could find for storage and furniture. My wall locker used to be a storage box on the back of a vehicle,” she explained and acknowledged they had some “professional” help from SeaBees stationed about a mile away. “Those guys were amazing,” she said.
“I enjoyed basic training, but it was hard and I wouldn’t do it again. I was in pretty good shape before basic, because I went to 24-Hour Fitness and worked with a personal trainer for a couple of months before I went in. I didn’t want to be the first person to fail at push-ups. The physical part was harder than the mental part,” she recalled.
Neelands turns 21 next week and is engaged to a New Yorker, a former soldier she met in Afghanistan. She has a few more months in Afghanistan and two more years of active duty. She does not plan to re-enlist.
“I joined mostly for the experience and education benefits,” she explained. “And at the time there were no better options here at home – and I got my first choice of training. Financially, it was a good move for me, because I got $1,000 a month from the time I originally signed up and received $10,000 of it when I went active. They’re paying me the additional $3,000 in increments until I leave. My base pay is about $2,000 a month now.”
She said she has saved a decent amount as all of the basics are covered by the Army. However, she and her comrades do shop online and have merchandise delivered to them right in camp.
Being a woman in uniform has occasionally led to “shock” among local Afghanis, she said, and noted that one of the women in the officer training class refused to shake hands with her.
“I was OK with it, and in their culture, it wasn’t really rude.. Things are different there, and you have to look at them differently than we would at home. You’ve got to go experience it, and understand that it’s not about you. It’s about respecting them.”
Getting from the frozen wastes of Afghanistan to sunny El Dorado County and home for the holidays was a four-day ordeal, and she noted that her group was one of the last to go on leave. She took a helicopter from Camp Spann to the big airfield at Bagram. From there, it was a C-130 to Qatar, another transport plane to Kuwait. After 24 hours in Kuwait, she caught a commercial charter to Leipzig and finally another charter for an 11-hour flight to Atlanta.
“I took a lot of NyQuil,” she said, adding, “We were a small group and everyone had at least two seats on the charters. It was much more comfortable than the transports.”
From the other side of the world, Neelands is about as connected as she would be here. She communicates with friends and family by e-mail, texting and Facebook. Knowing how much her mom Dawn frets about her, Neelands said, “I don’t want her to worry, so I talk about things other than Afghanistan.”
And when her soldiering days are done?
“I’d like to stay in communications and public relations. I do that a lot and I really like it,” she said. “I’ll probably have to spend some time in New York, but we’ll definitely be moving back to California eventually.”