This column on then-Northern Arizona University cheerleader Kristyna Robinson, who served in Iraq, appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Nov. 19, 2004.
From the front lines to the spirit line
By Ed Odeven
Today marks the end of a special time in Kristyna Robinson’s life, the last football game she’ll participate in as a Northern Arizona cheerleader.
If all had gone as originally planned, this day would’ve taken place last fall. But her life took a different path the day she joined the Army National Guard in 2002.
Robinson, a 1999 graduate of Paradise Valley High School, joined the Army as a college underclassman. She had planned to attend officer candidate school upon completion of her psychology degree, become a military intelligence officer and then join the FBI.
But those plans changed when Robinson and four of her NAU cheerleading mates — National Guard members Joe Wren, a Purple Heart recipient; Brett Jacobson; Glenn Whitting; and Matt Mahaffey — got “the call” in January 2003.
It was then, when the team was training for a national competition, that the five cheerleaders were informed they’d be going to Iraq.
“We were actually at cheer practice when we got called,” Robinson says. “Joe got a voice mail on his phone and (it) said we needed to leave.”
As members of the 1404th Transportation Company, based in Bellemont, the five NAU students were sent to Fort Bliss in Texas for three months before they were ordered to go overseas.
The 1404th served in northern Iraq and in Bilad, which is about one hour north of Baghdad, delivering equipment for helicopters and vehicles, food, supplies — whatever was needed.
Robinson, who went to basic training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, served as an 88M, a truck driver/heavy motor vehicle transport operator, and also helped out with communications and administrative support.
During a recent interview, she spoke gratefully about how fortunate her unit was.
“We did not have any casualties in our company and completed more than 1 million miles,” Robinson says.
Like in any war, there were, of course, several life-or-death incidents for Robinson and members of the 1404th.
“We had just pulled out of our compound and we were fired at,” she says, recalling one of those incidents.
“It was probably the scariest because we were in a convoy with fuel trucks. They were aiming for the fuel trucks and it went right in between them. We were three trucks behind them. If it had hit the fuel truck, it would’ve been really bad.”
Mahaffey, who worked as a recoveries specialist, has similar memories.
“The scariest moments for me was when I knew either Kristyna or Joe or somebody that I was very close to was on a convoy there and something happened there,” Mahaffey recalls. “And I didn’t have any information except for ‘the convey got hit’ or … ‘something happened’ … ’til I got back and I was able to see that everybody was OK.”
It was during times like these that Robinson and Mahaffey weren’t nearly as chummy as they’d be on the sideline during a football game or as carefree as they might be during a laid-back afternoon practice at the Skydome.
“While we were over there … you do get in a military mindset,” says Mahaffey, a five-year member of the team who’s now an assistant coach.
What was Robinson’s personality like in Iraq? Mahaffey was asked.
“I hesitate to say less personal, but I think we were all focused on what were doing,” he says. “But it certainly was nice to hang out with each other, having somebody (around) that you’ve known for a while.”
It was, however, difficult to stay in tip-top physical shape in the military.
“It was a struggle,” Robinson says, reminding me she worked 16-18 hours a day. “Being in Iraq, we didn’t really have time to exercise too much. Everyone has the misconception that we went over there and ran five miles a day and were in really good shape. I was probably in the worst shape I’ve been in college while I was over there.”
And, to say the least, it was challenging for Robinson to keep up with what was happening at NAU and the world around her while she was stationed in Iraq. (She did manage to find time to practice her cheers and routines “two or three times while we were in Iraq.”)
“We didn’t really get (steady) Internet access until six months in,” she says. “It would be really sporadic and the Internet would be down a lot. Towards the end, they started to have, like, cafes just full of computers.”
The 1404th returned to the U.S. in April, first to Fort Bliss and then to Show Low.
Robinson is a full-time student again and will graduate in May. She then plans to go to graduate school to study forensics psychology, possibly to John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
In the meantime, she’s still serving one weekend a month in the National Guard and enjoying her time as a cheerleader, doing the drills with an almost completely new squad than the one she was a part of at NAU two years ago.
Robinson’s story wasn’t common knowledge to many of them.
“Some people didn’t know,” she says, referring to her time in Iraq. “When I would tell them, they would be like, ‘You were really over there?’ They were kind of surprised at first that a cheerleader would go to Iraq.”
Robinson did, serving her country courageously.
Now she’s back. And the former dancer/gymnast/prep track athlete is doing what she loves on Saturdays — for one more week. And she’ll never forget that.
“I appreciate the little stuff a lot more,” she says. “I don’t take as much for granted.”