4th Fighter Wing airman earns Bronze Star for service in Iraq
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on June 2, 2008 1:47 PM
A tear rolls down Tonya Westerman's cheek.
The Air Force master sergeant can't make it through a discussion about her recent deployment without remembering the fallen.
She never thought she would witness a military funeral. She never pictured herself saluting a flag-draped casket along a tarmac in the desert.
The truth is, she never planned on a lot of the things that transpired during her 365-day tour.
Just a simple accountant -- that is how she saw herself before boarding that plane bound for Baghdad.
But something happened.
It was March 2007.
Master Sgt. Westerman, a member of the 4th Fighter Wing's Comptroller Squadron, was gearing up for a year at war.
She was assigned to Multi-National Transition Command in Iraq.
"I was supposed to be doing some accounting," she said.
But when she got to that base in Baghdad's International Zone, she assumed a role she could have never seen coming.
"I fell into the position of being the senior ranking enlisted person. That put me as superintendent," she said. "So now, I am in charge of overseeing everything and taking care of the troops -- taking care of people coming in, taking care of people going out, if something went wrong ... I had sole accountability for everybody."
All that responsibility for a young woman from a farming community in Illinois who admits she never considered making military service a career.
"I said, 'OK, I'll do this. Four years -- it will pay for my schooling,'" Master Sgt. Westerman said. "That way my mom wouldn't have to worry about paying for anything."
But she found something in "the culture" she came to love.
And for the last 19 years, she has worked numbers on air bases across the world.
In her current role at Goldsboro's Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, she helps young airmen manage their finances.
"I sit and guide them," Master Sgt. Westerman said. "I try to mentor them."
Her last assignment, though, was much different.
She was still guiding young airmen, only now, away from incoming fire -- not debt.
Master Sgt. Westerman would tell you leaders in theater have little time to sleep -- that she worked 20-hour days, getting home around 4 a.m. only to report back four hours later.
And in between shifts, there was usually some type of attack -- mortar, rockets, shrapnel.
So most nights, her "down time" was spent yelling at her men to take cover.
"You grab your gear and tell the troops, 'Get your crap on. Get it on and let's go,'" she said. "Our building was tin, so if something came in it, we're gone. So we run to a concrete barrier. And I wanted to make sure everyone returned with all their body parts, so I was always the last one out of the building."
Back in the office, Master Sgt. Westerman helped oversee a $15.2 billion budget.
She briefed senators, congressmen and senior leaders on the ground.
"All the money everyone was talking about that we're spending in Iraq, all of that was overseen by our command," she said. "All the Forward Operating Bases, they all had different missions. If they needed something, they would send in a request to the headquarters."
But all their missions were geared toward the same end, she said.
"That money is being spent to help build up the political aspect and for the training -- anything that is needed to get the Iraqi military and police up and going," Master Sgt. Westerman said. "The more missions they are doing, the less we are doing ... and they are getting there."
"When I got there, we were in the front and they were watching. But they were in training," she added. "Then, about the middle of the tour, you saw a lot of us doing things together. Now, you see a lot more of the Iraqis doing it, and we're behind."
From March 2007 to Easter of this year, she saw firsthand progress being made in Iraq, she said.
"They are coming along pretty good. I mean, if you think about it, how long did it take for us to stand up our military -- our Army, our Navy, our Air Force? It didn't happen in one or two years," Master Sgt. Westerman said. "Now, if we can just get rid of the insurgents, that would be really nice. All that incoming slows us down a little."
Master Sgt. Westerman had no need for an alarm clock at that base in Baghdad.
The insurgents took care of that, she said.
"We had incoming at 6:30 every morning," she said. "You could set your watch to it."
Like on her first day in theater.
She was exhausted from two days of travel.
"I got in at 5 a.m. and I was told, Get some rest,'" Master Sgt. Westerman said. "A few hours later, all you hear is, 'Boom.' I roll out of bed, under the bed and was like ... this is really happening. And then you hear (tapping). That's the shrapnel falling."
That first day gave her an idea of what real war was like, she said.
And looking back at the months that followed, other things stand out.
Like the fact that she always carried a loaded gun -- something she would "never, ever" do back at Seymour Johnson.
"I'm a finance person and now I am carrying a gun. And any time I left my base, she was hot. We're targets to be kidnapped at all times," she said. "Once I leave my FOB, I'm walking around with a loaded weapon. ... I never thought that would happen to me."
Something else happened on that tour Master Sgt. Westerman never expected.
The airman earned the Bronze Star.
"I was quite shocked. I told the colonel, 'I haven't done anything. I don't deserve this,'" she said. "He said, 'Yes you have and yes you do. You have taken care of all of us.'"
But she vows not to wear the medal for herself.
Her decoration, she says, is for the departed -- those she never knew but shed tears for on that flight line in Iraq.
"To actually stand there and watch a military funeral at a deployed location, it's a unique experience -- one you know you will never forget. You see it on TV, but when you're actually standing there, when you go up there and salute the boots and the picture, it's hard," she said, a tear rolling down her cheek. "This is serious. Our guys are putting their lives on the line every day over there. ... I don't deserve the Bronze Star Medal. They do."
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