While the other kids at school had their pencils poised to fill out college applications, Jen Williamson and Tiana Schneider were hanging out in the Army recruiting office, with their feet up, passing their senior year away with their next few years locked down.

Willamson and Schneider, who graduated from Cape Elizabeth High School in 2003, have known each other since they were in kindergarten, but they became close friends in their senior year at Cape High bonding over their common destination – the Army.

In uniform it is clear Williamson and Schneider are part of the same military branch, but in experience, their worlds don’t match up at all. Schneider, a musician, plays in the Army band, enjoying days of band practice and nights of festivals and performances, while Williamson, an Arabic linguist, works in top-secret information gathering and has worked in the Abu Ghraib prison.

Army recruiters netted Williamson the summer before her senior year, when she was still undecided about what would follow graduation. Unprepared for college, she was open to their suggestions. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do, we really weren’t ready to go to college,” she said of her and Schneider.

Plus, she said, “just pick a profession, and it’s in there.” Williamson admits to feeling skeptical about what the Army could offer her, but said she was pleasantly surprised at the job selection.

Though Williamson’s decision to join the Army gave Schneider a little nudge to do the same, the military was always in the forefront for Schneider who comes from a military family. Her parents, both Coast Guard, met when they were stationed in Miami.

Williamson, who said if she did go to school would’ve studied languages, now is an Arabic linguist, while Schneider is a musician for one of 30 bands in the Army.

Fluent in Spanish when she graduated high school, Williamson knew she possessed not only a strong interest but a talent and skill for languages. Had she gone on to college, she most likely would have studied languages, she said. Her talent for languages was identified when she scored in the highest of four levels in the Army languages skills test. So the Army sent her to train to learn one of the most difficult – Arabic.

While Williamson was training in Monterey, Calif., home of the Defense language Institute, Schneider was already in Germany, playing her saxophone and singing in the band.

Schneider is more than satisfied with her post in the Army. “I’m getting paid to play, and I’ve met some of the best musicians in my life,” said Schneider.

While in Germany, Schneider played her share of beer fests, which are her favorite gigs. During the many German parades Schneider played, the hospitable German people welcomed Americans openly, handing them cups of beer as they marched down the street in the parade.

“At the fest, our uniform was our ticket. We’d get everything free,” said Schneider. The band is the only division in the Army that can drink alcohol while in uniform, said Schneider.

While Schneider was partying it up with the Germans, Williamson’s 18 months of intensive training were underway. Determined to pass, she studied relentlessly. After eight hours in the classroom where she was only allowed to speak Arabic, even during the bathroom breaks, she returned to class for late night study hall sessions.

The fear of failure drove her to put in the extra time. She knew if she failed three tests, they would bounce her from the school and reassign her to an awful post. “I was always scared of that, I didn’t want any other job in the army…like something nobody wants to do – like being a trucker.”

Her fears were unfounded and she passed without incident. Following her schooling in California, Williamson was sent to an interrogation school in Texas for four more months. In Texas, Williamson said she practiced her job, though she said she couldn’t divulge the details.

Once her training program was complete, Williamson returned to the Army base in Fort Drum, N.Y., where she discovered she was needed in Iraq. She wasn’t surprised or even nervous. The thought of it was satisfying.

“I was kind of expecting to go, that’s the only place I was going to be able to use my job,” she said.

While in Fort Drum, Williamson worked with the infantrymen. She and other linguists instructed the soldiers on rudimentary Arabic for about six weeks before departing for Baghdad.

Once in Baghdad, she worked with Iraqi civilians who helped her translate the multiple dialects of Arabic. After several months, she was sent to the Abu Ghraib prison where American brutality and torture of prison detainees was uncovered in April 2004.

Williamson worked in the prison post scandal and said she did not see the abuses described by media stories in 2004.

While at Abu Ghraib, Williamson was responsible for setting up and guarding communication equipment. However, while there she saw detainees brought in and leave the prison.

While some soldiers, unable to communicate with the detainees would simply shout English in an attempt to relay their messages, other soldiers would tape Arabic language cliff notes to the rim of their hats or the butt of their guns.

Oftentimes, she said the detainees were minors. She theorized that many of the detainees claimed to be younger than they really were because they knew the rules required minors be released sooner than adults. Williamson estimates that one of the youngest detainees she saw was 12 years old.

She estimated that thousands of prisoners were being held there at a time. She saw at least five or six brought in a day.

Williamson rode over to the prison about 20 miles west of Baghdad with a convoy of Humvees, through what is commonly known as IED alley. Though Williamson never experienced a bombing, military outfits commonly were attacked by what the military calls improvised explosive devices. Though never attacked,Williamson never dropped her guard.

“It’s kind of scary, even though nothing happens. It can happen, it happens every day,” said Williamson.


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