Shelby Pennington: Making it work

T-R PHOTO BY JEFF HUTTON
Shelby Pennington enjoys a quiet day at home with her children Zarhona, left, and Zander.

T-R PHOTO BY JEFF HUTTON Shelby Pennington enjoys a quiet day at home with her children Zarhona, left, and Zander.

Editor’s note: This is the final story in an ongoing series of articles profiling those who have ever served in the U.S. military, be it overseas or stateside.

Shelby Pennington is a warrior. She has seen firsthand the atrocities of war, experienced the devastating loss of her Army colleagues and endured a personal tragedy — all which have shaped who she is today.

It was shortly after Sept. 11, 2001 when Pennington decided she wanted to fight for her country.

“I had talked to recruiters before 9/11; I was very young and unsure what I wanted to do,” she said. “But 9/11 happened and that really pushed me.”

So the following January, she signed her paperwork and enlisted, traveling that next month to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., for basic training.

“When we got to the reception center, we were all sitting on the bus, our duffle bags on our laps. Then the drill sergeants got on the bus and started yelling at us. And when I get really nervous, I just start laughing … so I got some real individual attention,” Pennington recalled. “It was a major wake-up call because you realize you’re not in control. They break you down in order to bring you back up.”

Following weeks of basic training, Pennington was sent to Fort Lewis, Wash., where she quickly realized the military was the right choice for her.

“It made me grow up fast,” she said, acknowledging that the Army put her on a more disciplined and purposeful path.

Pennington, who had become a military police officer by then, trained hard, going out to the fields around Fort Lewis where she and other soldiers looked for meth dump sites in the area.

There was training on the range, both outside and inside, including virtual reality scenarios.

“I found a lot of it very interesting,” Pennington said. “It was also long hours and long days and part of me questioned as to ‘Am I really going to use this stuff?'”

As part of the invading force in 2003, Pennington would find out, as she was first deployed to Kuwait and then to Iraq.

“Obviously we were some of the first forces there, nothing had been established,” she said, recalling that the first few months were difficult, as she and others battled the enemy, as well as the weather and other less-than-desirable conditions.

Pennington’s unit ultimately was assigned to the Paul Bremer detail. Bremer was the American diplomat essentially in charge after the United States invaded Iraq.

Working side by side with Black Water Security, Pennington and her fellow soldiers were always on guard — Bremer was under constant threat by Saddam Hussein’s loyalists and others.

But the training Pennington and her fellow soldiers had undergone proved successful.

“I had full faith in my leadership, my sergeants, my staff sergeants. They were going to protect us, lead us in the right direction and ultimately they did.”

After a difficult and stressful year overseas, Pennington returned to the states.

“After we first got back, I thought, ‘We’re done, I don’t ever have to do it again,'” she said.

But her then-husband (the couple later divorced) was deployed and Pennington too was called up to again travel back to Iraq.

“It was Jan. 10, our last weekend stateside, and I got very, very ill,” she said. “I ended up in the hospital and our unit was deploying that Monday.”

Pennington’s unit subsequently left without her as she continued her recovery. As she got better, however, news from overseas provided a new shock to her system — her husband had been seriously wounded (for a time he was unable to walk).

He survived his physical wounds, and Pennington cared for him until the Army demanded she join her colleagues in Iraq (doctors giving her a clean bill of health).

Her mother filled in as caretaker and Pennington left for the Middle East.

Pennington’s second deployment proved to be life changing.

She recalls seeing mass grave sites, where the horrors of war were made clear — Iraqis who had been slaughtered by Saddam Hussein and his followers.

The images, still seared in Pennington’s brain today, served as a dark reminder that she was no longer in the United States. So disturbing, she remembers being able to call her father, just so she could vent and release the emotions that prompted crazy dreams during that deployment.

“He just told me [the dreams were] a way to cope and that I would get through it,” she said.

By this time, however, Pennington had reached the rank of sergeant — she was in a leadership position now helping to train others.

“Never in a million years would I have thought I would be in a leadership position, but I found it so rewarding,” she said.

The work continued in Iraq for several months, until Pennington was able to return to the states for two weeks of R&R. It was precious time being able to spend time with family, something she would recall in the weeks and months to come.

After returning to Iraq, Pennington soon learned she was pregnant.

“I was happy but also devastated because I had to leave my team, I was their leader,” she said.

But a cruel twist of fate intervened. Still celebrating her pregnancy with family at Thanksgiving, Pennington received a call — three members of her unit had been killed when the truck they had been operating was hit by enemy fire — her replacement who had taken her seat, the driver and an interpreter lost their lives. The gunner survived but lost both her legs.

Had Pennington not been pregnant, she surely would have been killed.

And then just a few weeks later, still struggling with the death of her friends, Pennington suffered a miscarriage.

Heartbroken over the loss of a baby and her comrades, Pennington concedes the tragedy has never left her.

“I don’t know how you get over it; I’m still trying to figure it out,” she said, tears streaming down her face. “But the way I look at it, I feel like God sent me an angel and that angel did her mission — that’s just the way I’ve coped with it.”

Pennington and her ex-husband both retired from the military and Pennington moved forward. She now works as a jailer with the Marshall County Sheriff’s Office and has two children, Zander and Zarhona.

Her military experience is behind her, yet the heartache still exists today. Despite that and the memories that are still so fresh, Pennington has few regrets about her time in the Army. And yes, she’d do it again if her nation asked.

“I’d drop everything and go in a heartbeat; there’s no question about it,” she said. “It would be terribly difficult and I’d have to figure out a care plan for the kids, but other people do it every single day. I know I could make it work.”

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Contact Jeff Hutton at 641-753-6611 or jhutton@timesrepublican.com