Nine years after helping the Juneau girls basketball team win a state title, Shanie Wery found herself on the streets of Baghdad, in battles with much higher stakes.
But whether dribbling up the court in Juneau or patrolling the sands of Iraq, Wery took comfort in the same thing - the trust she placed in her team.
Wery, a 1996 graduate of Juneau-Douglas High School, returned to Fort Lewis, Wash., in January after spending a year in Iraq with her military police unit. On a visit to Juneau last month, Wery said that when her unit left its Baghdad compound and went out on patrol, she drew from her days as a Crimson Bear.
"It's like being on a basketball team in that you've got to be the cheerleader for your squad," she said. "If you don't have cohesiveness when you go outside the wire, anything can happen. If you're not in synch with the driver in front of you, and they swerve to avoid something and you're not paying attention, you could hit it.
"Everyone's got their position, their job, what they're supposed to do. It's like being the captain of a basketball team. Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses, and you have to know them."
In February 1996, Wery played a key role in the Juneau girls' run to the state basketball title. In the state semifinals against top-ranked Colony, Wery was the Crimson Bears' leading scorer and made a key blocked shot late in the game. She made the all-tourney squad as Juneau beat East Anchorage in the final.
"She was really a team player, and willing to do anything," said current Juneau coach Lesslie Knight, who served as an assistant coach in 1996. "She would be a great screener, would do the dirty work getting in there to get rebounds. She had incredible floor leadership, and would have done anything for her teammates."
After graduating that spring, Wery attended and played basketball for Southwestern Oregon Community College. She returned to Juneau after receiving her associate degree in 1998, and decided to enlist in the Army with a focus on military police - including convoy protection, security details other forms of combat support.
"It wasn't like I was hoping anything would happen (but) I wanted to do something exciting, something different," she said. "I felt everything was slow-paced at that point."
Wery excelled in basic training and was named a Distinguished Honor Graduate when she completed training in 1999. She said working hard to meet the expectations of her basketball coaches prepared her for the rigors of basic training.
"Lesslie was always on my case about doing it the right way if I was going to do it at all, and I should get off the court (if I didn't)," Wery said. "In a way, that went into my basic training."
She served for two years in Mannheim, Germany, during which time she was deployed on two four-month assignments to support troops in Macedonia and Kosovo.
In October 2001, she was reassigned to Fort Lewis, near Seattle. From June to December of 2002, her unit went to Cuba to work at the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay. In May 2003, Wery's unit received its orders to go to Iraq. After months of training, they headed overseas in January 2004.
"It was exciting, not because I was going somewhere dangerous but because I was going to be a part of something," Wery said. "I felt obligated. My parents instilled in me that if you do something, you should do it all the way. The Army said, 'this is how you're going to do it all the way.'"
While in Iraq, Wery's unit was based in southern Baghdad and charged with helping establish and train an Iraqi police force.
"We were there to monitor them, to train them how to do things - how to handcuff, how to do a traffic stop," Wery said.
Training was slow, language barriers hard to overcome, and the frequent violence - particularly when Iraqi militants attacked civilians - caused a lot of frustration.
Still, Wery said the police units she assisted showed definite progress during her time in Iraq.
Wery served as a squad leader - a squad includes three teams of three soldiers each - and her unit also provided protection to military convoys and conducted patrols around its base. One day Wery had to attend a training session, so a fellow soldier took her spot on a patrol. The patrol was attacked, and the soldier in Wery's place lost a foot.
"I think about that the most," she said. "It was my spot, and I should have been there. ... I felt bad that I hadn't been there with them. I feel lucky, but part of me wanted to be there to help them."
While there were a few serious injuries, everyone from Wery's unit returned home.
"I'm most proud of the fact that we all worked together," she said. "There isn't a person in my platoon that I wouldn't have gone out with, that I wouldn't trust my life with, and I did every day. ... They were my team out there."
The support her unit received from home was also appreciated.
"We get the care packages, and we don't know who to thank, but there are thank yous" every time a package is opened, Wery said.
Since returning to the U.S. in January, Wery - a sergeant - said she and her fellow soldiers have gained a new appreciation for the freedom of America, but they are still adjusting to the normalcy of life here.
Wery said members of her unit are still in the habit of scanning roadsides or overpasses for explosives or snipers, or assessing the risks of being in public places.
Wery is due to leave the military in May, and she is considering a career in security. Last month, while on leave from Fort Lewis, Wery returned to Juneau and was recognized at a JDHS girls basketball game.
"I love coming back here," she said. "There are things here that change, but the feeling when I land - it's a great feeling to know this is where my roots are, and I'm just me here. I don't have to be anybody else, to be in charge of anybody else. It's good to have a place like this in the world today."
Andrew Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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