Alyssa Norbury trades a uniform for civvies and heads to Iraq

VFW Post 9261 sergeant at arms Peter Nickowal, left, quartermaster Peter Herrmann, and present commander Ronnie Klein recently presented Alyssa Norbury with a VFW garrison cap to take with her to Iraq. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

At a time when many American soldiers are wrapping up tours in the Middle East, Alyssa Norbury of Oak Bluffs, a specialist in the U.S. Army Reserves, is heading back to Iraq by choice, this time to work as a civilian. In 2005, she served as a flight operations specialist with the U.S. Army 126th Air Ambulance Company, based in Baghdad.

On or around May 21, Ms. Norbury will return to Baghdad for a year to work as a civilian for a defense contractor. The company, which asked not to be named for security reasons, provides aviation services with armed protection for diplomats who fly around Iraq.

Ms. Norbury is a mother of five grown children, two boys and three girls, ages 23 to 28. She also has seven grandchildren who range in age from seven months to 11 years old. As her family knows, this 48-year-young grandma is happiest when serving her country dressed in a Kevlar vest and combat boots, and she can handle an M-16 rifle or 9-millimeter pistol.

“My first granddaughter was born on the day I was sworn into the Army National Guard,” Ms. Norbury told The Times with pride in a recent phone conversation.

From the description she received of her new job as an air asset control marshal, Ms. Norbury said she expects her civilian experience in Iraq will be quite different from her military tour of duty.

“I’ll actually be working in an office in the embassy in flight operations and keeping track of all aircraft and pilots and their courses, staying in touch with them, and recording when they stop and when they lift off,” she said. “I’ll also have to keep track of the weather and warn them about conditions such as dust storms, which can come up very quickly. I have to keep very attentive.”

Ms. Norbury will work six days a week, with Fridays off. Despite the demanding schedule, she said, “It’s going to be so much better than going as a soldier. When I went to Iraq before, I had two weeks off the whole year. This time, I’ll work 60 days followed by 30 off.”

Why work in Iraq?

When asked by The Times what prompted her to take the job, Ms. Norbury answered frankly, “The money is unbelievable. We’ll be able to pay off our mortgage.”

In addition to a lucrative salary, the job offers full benefits, including dental, medical and vision, for her and her husband, Scott Norbury. They met online in 2009 and were married two years ago last August.

Like many couples in today’s economy, Ms. Norbury said they struggle with finances, and even more so since she quit her job at Vineyard Medical Services last October. Mr. Norbury, age 52, works full-time at the Tisbury Water Works Department.

“I’m not a traditional girl,” Ms. Norbury admitted. “There’s not a lot to do here on the Island as far as jobs go, and I’m not one to be a waitress.”

Last September, a good friend told her that with her military experience, she could get a job with the defense contractor he works for “in a heartbeat.” He said the hiring process could be lengthy, so she applied online right away.

Ms. Norbury said when she told her husband, he was not happy with the idea at first, but came around after she answered all his questions and they discussed the pros and cons. Mr. Norbury showed his support by hosting a big send-off celebration for her at VFW Post 9261 in Oak Bluffs on April 14.

Another enticement the job offers is the opportunity to travel. “They will fly me anywhere in the world for free, up to $10,000 for travel in that year,” she said. Ms. Norbury plans to take all of her grandkids on a Disney Family Cruise next April, and she and her husband hope to make a trip to the Cayman Islands.

The hiring process took eight months. Ms. Norbury was notified April 4 she had the job and should have “boots on the ground on May 21.”

Over the next several weeks she will receive training in Melbourne, Fla., and three days of weapons training in North Carolina, while waiting for her Iraqi visa. Once her visa comes in, she will spend a week at home before returning to Florida for deployment to Iraq.

From motherhood to the military

Ms. Norbury was a stay-at-home mom living in Vermont with four kids and another on the way when her husband left her in 1987. She struggled to make ends meet, and went back to school. While studying to be a paralegal at Woodbury College in 1991, Ms. Norbury said she felt a call to duty when American troops were sent to Iraq for Operation Desert Storm.

“My parents say my blood is red, white, and blue,” she said with a laugh.

Ms. Norbury joined the Vermont Air National Guard, and at age 29 was the oldest recruit at basic training. From 1991 to 1999, she served as a flight operations specialist for the U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighter Squadron.

Several years later, in 2005, an Army recruiter came to her house one day to talk to her oldest son. Ms. Norbury told him she wished she could serve again but thought she was too old.

“But since I was 42 and had prior service, it turned out I could serve in the Army National Guard,” she recalled. “I said, ‘Sign me up.’ So I joined, and my son didn’t.”

Iraq, the first time around

In her new assignment Ms. Norbury served as a flight operations specialist for a U.S. Army Medevac Company from 2005 to 2007. She was deployed to Iraq from April 2005 through March 2006, where she served as the eyes and ears for a Blackhawk helicopter crew based in Baghdad. For example, Ms. Norbury watched for flashes of light from the ground that signaled a rocket or missile had been fired at them and warned the pilots, who had only seconds to change course.

Their mission was to fly to casualty sites and provide emergency medical treatment and evacuation for Iraqi civilians as well as military personnel. Ms. Norbury said the experience changed her perception of the Iraqi people. “A lot of them are just like us; they just want to live their lives,” she said, adding, “I’m so thankful I was born in America.”

Weighing the risk

While in Iraq, Ms. Norbury reenlisted with the Army National Guard for eight more years. She currently serves in the U.S. Army reserves with the rank of specialist. Since her enlistment would be up in June, she got an early release because of her new job in Iraq.

Depending on how the first year goes, Ms. Norbury said she might sign on to work in Iraq for a couple of more years. “If I can take it and Scott can take it,” she added.

When asked about the danger factor, she said her family is more worried about that than she is. “In all reality, everybody has to die,” Ms. Norbury said. “If I was killed in action or something like that, I would rather go that way than die from cancer or get hit by a car.”

“I think my biggest fear this time is the same as the first time; that’s camel spiders,” she added. “They’re huge. They can measure 13 inches across and run 35 miles per hour. I plan to see as few of them as possible.”