Princeton Personality By Jean Stratton
Staff Sgt. Marion Cavanaugh Comes Home After Serving in Iraq
Marion Cavanaugh calls Princeton home, but in fact, she has lived all over the world most recently for a year in Iraq with the U.S. Army Reserve.
Born in Toronto, Canada in 1975, she was the middle child of Robert Cavanaugh and Penelope Wilkinson. "My parents were Arabic majors and met when they were students at Georgetown University," recalls Ms. Cavanaugh. "Later my mom went to Lebanon, and they both did graduate work in Cairo."
After a few years in Canada, the family, including Marion's older brother Alexander and younger sister Katie, went to live in Saudi Arabia, where Mr. Cavanaugh taught English.
Returning to Canada when she was nine, Marion remained there until she was 15 when her parents were divorced. The family then came to Princeton.
"My mom grew up in Princeton, and my grandparents still live here," says Ms. Cavanaugh. "Some of my happiest memories are when we were living overseas, and we'd come back for vacation and see our grandparents. I always looked forward to that.
"I really admired my three uncles Hank, Bill, and Matt my mom's brothers. They were bigger than life to me. All three were my heroes. They were very different, and fun, and interesting. Family is very important to me, especially because we moved around so much."
Ms. Cavanaugh's grandparents, William and Virginia Wilkinson, are long-time Princeton residents.
"We've lived in our current house for 50 years, and I have actually lived in the Princeton area since 1937," says Mrs. Wilkinson. "All our children started in Littlebrook School and went through the Princeton school system. We couldn't be more proud of Marion. In every generation, as in most families, we've had people in the military, going back to World War I and World War II. We love her dearly and are so glad to have her back."
Mrs. Wilkinson adds that a service flag, featuring two stars, is displayed in a window of the Wilkinson's home. "One star is for Marion and the other for her mother, who is a Vice Consul at the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem. She is serving too."
Serving others was always emphasized in her family, reports Ms. Cavanaugh, who worked with Habitat for Humanity while she attended Princeton High School, and also volunteered for other service organizations, as well.
"I can't say I was really crazy about school, but I did have good teachers, and I enjoyed English literature," says Ms. Cavanaugh, who was especially drawn to sports and outdoor activities.
"I played soccer, was on the track team, and I liked biking. I enjoyed being active. I also liked to travel, and in the summer between my sophomore and junior years in high school, I went to Tunisia."
After graduating from high school in 1993, Marion hoped to join the Peace Corps. "I had looked forward to that," she recalls, "but it turned out you needed a college degree, and I really wanted some time off before going to college. So, I chose the army. In the army, I felt I could help people; it was a way to contribute, to travel, and also, I hoped, to have some fun."
She signed up for four years, and took basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. The eight weeks were rigorous, she reports, but her attitude was positive, and she didn't find it too difficult even having to survive on four hours of sleep a night.
"Also, I had a great 'battle buddy', another recruit, and she had a terrific attitude. That definitely helped," reports Marion.
After undergoing a variety of aptitude tests, Ms. Cavanaugh opted to become a medic and went to Fort Sam Houston in Texas for training. Then in 1994, she was assigned to a research base in Massachusetts, where she stayed for two and a half years and worked with a doctor.
"As a medic, you are trained at a level higher than that of a basic EMT, and the training never stops," she explains. "The role of the medic is really to be on the front line and to help before the wounded are sent to a hospital."
After her stint in Massachusetts, she was stationed in South Korea. "It was north of Seoul, near the DMZ," she says, adding, "I liked Korea and the Korean people very much. The country is beautiful, with a wonderful range of scenery, and I made some good friends there, too.
"I also liked my work," she continues. "We were in the field with an engineering unit, and I was able to use my skills as a medic."
In 1997, her four years were up, and after her discharge from the army, she attended Purdue University, studying fitness, nutrition, and health.
A year later, while still at Purdue, she decided to join the U.S. Army Reserve, which required a regimen of training one weekend a month and two weeks a year at a base near the reservist's home.
"I chose to join the Civil Affairs Unit in the Reserve," explains Ms. Cavanaugh. "It's a liaison between the military and the host nation's government. It was something different, and I could use my medical experience. There was also opportunity for deployment which appealed to me."
She was not disappointed. In 2000, she spent six months in Kosovo. "It was two years after the war," she recalls, "and we interacted with the people. Basically, it was to help get the Albanians and Serbians to work together in areas such as the electric and water companies, and we were involved with the political leaders. I felt we made some progress."
After that tour of duty, Ms. Cavanaugh, now a Staff Sergeant, returned to Princeton, obtaining a position at Princeton Nassau Pediatrics as a medical assistant.
In January, 2003, once again, her Civil Affairs Unit, which was part of the 404th Civil Affairs Battalion, was called up, and this time it was for duty in Iraq.
After training at Fort Bragg, N.C. and Fort Dix in New Jersey, Sgt. Cavanaugh's unit headed to Iraq at the outbreak of the war in March.
"I was apprehensive about a chemical attack," she recalls, "and we trained for that, but fortunately, it didn't materialize."
She was stationed in northern Iraq at As Sulaymaniyah in Kurdish territory. The goals were to aid the local authorities in setting up government facilities, reports Sgt. Cavanaugh, adding that the Kurds there were glad to see the U.S. troops and welcomed interaction with them.
She was one of two women in her company, which consisted of 30 soldiers. Her specific job was head of the operations team, a group of six people.
"We were in charge of monitoring where everyone was," she explains, "and also monitoring radio communication, including relaying messages from the Division, headquartered in Mosul."
Life in Iraq, particularly in the remote mountainous region where her unit was located, was not excessively difficult, she reports. "We weren't in the midst of the fighting, and we really didn't have a lot to complain about."
Although the area was basically friendly, constant vigilance was required, she points out.
"We lived in a converted hospital, which included our barracks, kitchen, etc. We had local cooks to do the cooking because we were an hour and a half away from the nearest base. The 'Peshmerga' local soldiers lived on the compound with us, and helped guard us. They accompanied us when we went to the neighboring towns. Four people were on a team, and they would have an area and assess the conditions in schools and hospitals, and talk with local officials."
In addition to the Peshmerga, translators accompanied the team, and Sgt. Cavanaugh notes that "You have to be aware at all times. Not scared, but always alert. Also, going to the market was very interesting. It was very, very crowded, and there were alleyways for different things a meat alley, vegetable alley, and rug alley.
"One day in the market, a little old man came up to me, and he was blind. He said his son was missing, and could we find him. It was very sad."
On another occasion, early on her tour, a Kurdish woman arrived at the base, and although Kurdish women do not confront the same harsh restrictions regarding interaction with men or travel that women face in some Arab countries, it was unusual for a woman to travel by herself, says Sgt. Cavanaugh.
The woman had come to pass on information about a possible hiding place of a relative of Saddam Hussein, and Sgt. Cavanaugh was present during the interview to help the woman feel more comfortable.
As one of only two women at the camp, she attracted a lot of attention, in particular from the Peshmerga. "They wanted to take our pictures all the time," she notes, and "also, one time in the market, someone asked one of my officers why the female soldiers hadn't been around and where were we. So, people did notice us."
Two highlights of her tour were the capture of Saddam Hussein and the visit of President Bush at Thanksgiving. Regarding the latter, she notes, "We were in the day room, watching TV, and someone said the President was there. We were totally surprised, and it was such a boost. It meant a lot. We knew some of the people who guarded him."
Another highlight was a two-week leave when she was able to visit her mother in Jerusalem. "I really admire my mother," remarks Sgt. Cavanaugh. "She always wanted to join the Foreign Service but had to postpone it. But recently, she was able to join, and now she is a vice consul. She speaks Arabic and French, and in the fall, she will become vice consul at the Consulate in Paris."
Sgt. Cavanaugh emphasizes that all her family has been very supportive of her decision to join the military, and she believes the life she has chosen will continue to make a difference not only to her but to those she helps to serve.
Aware of the controversial aspect of the war in Iraq, she is proud of her work there. "In the Civil Affairs Unit, 95 percent of the people are reservists," she explains. "The idea is to take our civilian jobs and specialties, such as medicine, law, engineering, etc., and send them overseas. Progress is being made, even in the other areas of Iraq. We felt strongly that we were helping the people of Iraq to have a better life, and no one I knew in the military thought it would be a short war.
"I have been in the military for more than 10 years," she adds, "and I never felt more involved as an American than when I was in Iraq."
She also points out that serving in the army has added to her skills and development as an individual. "Important benefits of being in the military are self-development, including increased self-confidence, skills, and training, and the opportunity to serve the country. My proudest achievement has been to get through the entire deployment always keeping my dignity and honor."
While in Iraq, when not on duty, she was able to read a lot, and also looked forward to mail and packages from home. Telephone and e-mail were available.
Many people on the home front wonder what they might do to help those in the military serving in harm's way, and Sgt. Cavanaugh suggests sending messages, letters, and packages, including books, candy, snacks, and socks through the Red Cross or other organizations. Especially helpful are small toys that the soldiers can give to local children. These are greatly appreciated.
Also, she adds, "Since I have been home, sometimes I'll meet someone who knows I have been in Iraq, and they will say something nice and thank me. That means a lot."
She says in some ways she wasn't quite prepared for her home-coming. "I was so looking forward to leaving Iraq that I didn't really prepare for being home."
Returning to Princeton in March, however, she did look forward to many things, including favorite foods, such as ice cream and her grandmother's spaghetti, and most especially, being reunited with her dog Patsy.
"I have really enjoyed having my dog back. That was the hardest part for me. I really missed her," says Sgt. Cavanaugh. "But the nicest thing happened when I went to Iraq. Helene Greenberg, one of the nurses at the Pediatrics Center kept Patsy while I was away. This was such a help for me.
A Kendall Park resident, Ms. Greenberg, Sgt. Cavanaugh's friend and colleague at Princeton Nassau Pediatrics, remembers that time with special pleasure.
"We had known each other from August to January, and we got along very well. Marion is very, very nice a good person, with a very warm heart, and she works hard. She has a real work ethic.
"Initially, in January, I didn't realize her situation, and at first she wasn't able to tell us where she was going. But before she had to leave, she needed to get things in order. Then, she told me she had to find a place for her dog. She showed me a picture of this adorable dog, and then I met Patsy, and said I'd take her!
"I already had a five-year-old golden retriever, a bird, lizard, fish, and two kids, but I couldn't resist. On New Year's Eve, I broached the subject with my husband, had a little champagne, and played up our patriotic duty. Of course, he said yes!"
There was some adjustment in the early days, recalls Ms. Greenberg, but ultimately, the year with Patsy went very smoothly.
"I have to say it was a phenomenal experience. In the Jewish religion, you are meant to do a good deed a mitzvah. And we wanted to do this. Over the year, we wondered where Marion was, and we worried about her. We felt it was the least we could do, with all the effort and sacrifice she was making and serving the country. It was nice for us to be able to do something."
Now, Sgt. Cavanaugh looks forward to returning to her job as medical assistant at Princeton Nassau Pediatrics in May, and also enrolling in college again.
She will continue to serve in the Reserve, however, and returning to Iraq is a distinct possibility. "I would return willingly to help the people of Iraq have a better life," she states.
In the meantime, she is happy to be home, relishing "just being able to do whatever you want the freedom to go wherever you want, whenever you want. Don't forget how really special this is."