Before she was a soldier in Iraq, Monica Beltran was a party girl in Woodbridge.
She was always out with her friends -- always, she says -- and if it seemed that she barely talked to her mother or seldom slept in her bed, well, that was how she thought life as a teenager should be. There was always another club, another party, another pack of cigarettes.
Then she went to Iraq.
There, she worked the rutted roads of the war zone, sometimes behind the wheel of a Humvee, often at the machine gun in the turret. It was a year removed from life as a suburban teenager, a year riven with doubt, discomfort, loneliness and, on one fateful day, an ambush that tested her courage and skill as nothing ever had.
At 21, Beltran has now remade her life in the United States with a war hero's medals and a combat veteran's sense of life's gravity -- her experience in many ways a coming-of-age story, the kind that men have told for centuries.
"Now she knows the party is not everything," her mother, Luz Washington, said recently, noting Beltran's full-time job and college classes. "Now," she said, "I worry she works too much."
In the words of her platoon sergeant, Michael Kohrt: "She probably matured five years in one year's time."
For American women, the life-altering experience of combat has never been so widespread. In Iraq and Afghanistan, women have deployed in numbers previously unknown -- more than 155,000 in the past five years.
Those who serve are often young, with 47 percent of enlisted soldiers younger than 25. For many, war becomes the defining force in life -- framing the path ahead, its choices, its sense of purpose, its bonds.
"Ever since I got back, I'm like, 'I got to get serious,' " Beltran said, reflecting on the year that has passed since her Virginia National Guard unit returned. "Life is really too short. You never know what is going to happen to you."
'What am I doing here?'
A snapshot: Monica Beltran in uniform, sitting in a camp chair just outside the tiny trailer where she slept in Balad, Iraq. Night has fallen, and she is staring into the enveloping blackness, lit by stars that feel remarkably close.
This is the most beautiful thing in Iraq, she recalls thinking.
Beltran imagines her mother half a world away, starting her day in Woodbridge. She wonders if she is driving her yellow school bus on the familiar streets around their home or tending to Beltran's little sister, who is in kindergarten.
It surprises Beltran how much she misses her family.
Before she left, she said, her mother was often mad at her. The teenager had a part-time job at McDonald's and had managed to graduate from Gar-Field High School, but otherwise, she said, she concentrated on "what I was going to do the next day, what party I was going to."
"You never have time for your family," she recalled her mother complaining. "Why can't you ever stay in the house?"
"I don't want to hear it," Beltran would answer.
She enlisted in the National Guard as a high school senior largely because her mother nagged her to think about college and the Guard would help pay tuition.
Her daily life in Balad was a procession of gun trucks and 18-wheelers that hauled supplies and equipment. The threat of hidden bombs was always there, and the unit often traveled in the dark -- veering to avoid potholes, dead animals and mounds of garbage that might conceal explosives.
Beltran, at the time 19, was the youngest member of her 46-soldier platoon. One soldier told her that she -- a female, a private first class -- would not respond quickly enough to an ambush. Others did not trust her driving. On a few bad days, she wondered to herself: "What am I doing here?"
Over the months, she developed as a gunner and driver, Sgt. 1st Class Michael Kohrt recalled.
Then, on Oct. 26, 2005, she was riding in a Humvee turret near Ashraf, her hands on the .50-caliber machine gun, when she heard a boom. She saw a cloud of acrid, black smoke and heard another boom. It was a "daisy chain" of bombs, one setting off the next, and was followed by a hail of gunfire.
They were under attack.
She remembers the next few minutes with unfading clarity.
Saying she had positive identification of the enemy, Beltran yelled, "I'm shooting back!"
She saw a line of armed men behind a roadside berm about 25 yards away. The men had a machine gun. The men had cover.
She kept firing.
A rocket-propelled grenade hit her Humvee on the driver's side, shattering the window and sending shards of glass into her driver. Then another.
Beltran kept firing.
"Just push forward," she urged the driver. "Take us out of the kill zone."
When she glanced at her hand, she noticed blood all over her left glove.
She had been hit, too.
She flashed on her family's faces.
She kept firing. She knew that as the gunner, it was up to her to suppress fire.
The kill zone was a mile long.
When the convoy was able to stop, she climbed out and someone took her aside for first aid. She heard there had been a casualty.
She walked toward the Humvee that had been ahead of hers. James Witkowski -- a well-liked sergeant filling in with the Virginia unit -- had been in the turret. The vehicle was blackened, dented and covered in blood.
She saw a body bag on the ground.
Beltran broke down in tears.
At the hospital where she was taken for her wound -- relatively minor, she knew -- the doctors said the bone in her thumb had been chipped by a bullet, leaving her with an open fracture.
Kohrt, an old-school leader who was not easily impressed, came up and hugged her.
"I'm very proud of you," the platoon sergeant told her. "You did good."
Back at the base, she returned to her Humvee. In her turret, there were bullet holes in her ammunition can, in her book bag, even in her box of Cheez-Its. She wondered why she hadn't been more severely wounded.
That evening, her unit gathered at the Balad airfield to salute Witkowski's flag-draped coffin. A chaplain said a prayer. Beltran could not believe it: Only hours earlier, she and the soldier were making jokes.
'I love my family'
Home in Woodbridge three months later, Monica Beltran lit a candle and said a prayer every night for the soldier lost in the ambush. She framed a collage of photographs of him and kept them beside the candle in her bedroom. It was January. On her wrist, she wore an engraved metal bracelet that bore his name.
Witkowski, she said, was the kind of soldier who made Iraq bearable, whose good spirits and humor lifted those around him. He was the only soldier she knew personally who had signed up because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
He "only had 30 days left in Iraq," she said.
In the weeks since she had returned home from war, she had found that the life she inhabited before Iraq was no longer so appealing.
"I still go out every once in a while," she said. "But I also have my priorities: Like, I go to school, I do my homework, I help around the house. I clean the house, I cook, I take my sister to school. I call my mom and say, 'Hey, Mom, how you doing?' Or sometimes she's upstairs reading, and we just start talking. Before, we never used to talk like that. But now, it's like, you know, that's my mother. I love my family."
At a ceremony in Martinsville, Va., two months later, Beltran stood near her fellow soldiers wearing her combat uniform for the first time since Iraq. She was awarded the Bronze Star With Valor. She had already been given a Purple Heart.
Her Bronze Star citation says that, in the face of a complex attack with "a massive amount of small arms fire," Beltran returned "maximum suppressive fire." Even after she was wounded, it said, she laid down "enough suppressive fire to ensure that the rear element of the convoy could move through the kill zone safely. . . . Her personal courage was beyond reproach and contributed to saving the lives of 54 soldiers."
Five other soldiers were awarded Bronze Stars that day. A Silver Star later went to the family of the fallen soldier -- who was credited with taking the full blast of the grenade, thus saving the lives of the three other soldiers in his vehicle.
Even now, the power of that day has not faded.
She reflects: "One day you lose your friend . . . and you're shooting and you see your whole life go by in seconds and you're thinking of all the things you should have done before you left and how the family comes first and then what happens if, you know, you die or something and you never got the chance to say goodbye to your mom."
'You changed a lot'
She is sitting in an apartment in Lorton -- her apartment -- which she has leased with her earnings from her job at Lockheed Martin. Being a service order dispatcher is not her long-term goal, she said, but it is a start.
One weekend a month, she returns to duty with the National Guard. She was promoted to sergeant in October.
Before she left for Iraq, Beltran often asked her mother for help in paying her car insurance and cellphone bill. She spent her weekends at clubs in the District, came home after dawn, and liked to buy the latest clothes and shoes
Her mother recalls telling her, "Monica, you have $10 in your pocket, and you spend $20."
To her mother's objections about her party life, Beltran would say: "Mommy, I'm young. I'm not old like you," her mother remembers.
Now Beltran thinks a lot about the future -- which is one reason why she moved from Woodbridge, where everyone knew her as the teenager she once was. "All my friends told me, 'You changed a lot,' " she said. "At first, they were kind of mad because I wouldn't go out anymore. I wasn't the same."
Lately, Beltran talks about paying off her credit cards and taking classes at Northern Virginia Community College, where she has a semester under her belt and is studying computer science. She thinks about buying a house near Stafford someday. She thinks of investing in property.
She mentions her new pickup truck, with its Purple Heart license plates. She says she chose a tag number with meaning to her.