First Lt. LeNeve talks with her team next to a drainage project outside of the American compound at Qayarrah Airfield, Iraq. Photo by Kimberly Westenhisen/Coffee or Die.
Managing 21 construction projects around Q-West in Iraq is no small feat, but U.S. Army First Lieutenant Caitlin LaNeve makes it look easy.
“There’s always something to do,” the 24-year-old West Point grad said with a laugh. LaNeve is currently deployed to Iraq with the 1/25 Arctic Wolves. She’s the regional engineer for the Coalition in Saladin Province — a job that would usually fall to a more senior officer.
With a petite frame and a big smile, LaNeve combines a friendly disposition with professionalism and competence, leaving no room for doubt about her capabilities.
LaNeve was the engineering element during a Key Leader Engagement (KLE) to visit a local Sheikh not far from Q-West. During the mission, she displayed clear communication and observation skills as she worked with the other officers to paint a clear image of every facet of the village.
After Sheikh served lunch, LaNeve made sure to also take some bread for the soldier driving the Buffalo.
“She’s like mom on the FOB,” said one noncommissioned officer (NCO), to the agreement of the others present. “You can come to her with just about anything and she’ll help you.”
U.S. troops currently find themselves amidst a complicated mire in post-ISIS Iraq. With ongoing hostilities from Iranian-backed factions of the Popular Mobilization Front (PMF) and a population railing against its government leading to violence and civilian fatalities, the U.S. Army faces a unique set of problems in its mission to defeat ISIS and prevent it from making a comeback.
KLE missions are vital to accomplishing this goal. Securing and maintaining strong relationships with the population outside of Q-West not only ensures the base’s security, but Assist and Advising missions can also leave these communities stronger than before.
LaNeve had previously taken part in advise and assist missions with a Security Force Assistance Brigade (SFAB) at the beginning of her most recent deployment to Iraq. She also managed construction, including building out barracks interiors, drainage projects, constructing gates for compounds, and a route clearance package that required maintenance. On top of that, she supervised solid waste and waste water management and disposal.
LaNeve was born in Illinois, but traveled every one to two years as an “Army brat.” She said that during her childhood, she lived in eight different states. Her father was in the infantry and remains on active duty; he still loves being in the Army.
After graduating from high school, LaNeve joined the Army and was accepted to the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York. She said her decision to go to West Point was influenced by her father and the people he brought to their house while growing up.
“They were just people I wanted to be like,” she said. “I liked their character, I liked their personalities, I liked how they were knowledgeable about a lot of different topics.”
Despite a now-established affinity for engineering, LaNeve said it was not what she initially wanted to do when she joined the Army. “I wanted to be a pilot,” she said. “I didn’t even know about the engineer branch. I didn’t really know what all I could do. So I’m very thankful that I had those four years [at West Point] to decide what I wanted to do.”
However, LaNeve’s journey from West Point to platoon leader has not been without its trials.
There was a change in her demeanor as she spoke about the uncertainty she’s faced. She questioned her ability to support and lead the unit she inherited, now disbanded for the deployment to Iraq. LaNeve credits this to inexperience, coming right out of college and immediately being saddled with new challenges and responsibilities.
“[It was] just a constant, Am I doing this right? Am I messing up my soldiers? Am I steering people the wrong way?” she said.
And while it has gotten easier, she still experiences self-doubt.
“I still ask for a bunch of guidance and mentorship all the time — probably much to the annoyance of my NCOs and warrant officers,” she said with a laugh.
But she also gets to see how the work she does makes a difference not only in the countries in which she serves, but in the soldiers she serves with. She told Coffee or Die that she recently received a message on social media from one of her soldiers who has since gotten out of the Army.
“‘Ma’am, you’re amazing and totally awesome-sauce,’” she read out loud. “‘I hope you’re having an okay day and just wanted to send you something to boost your spirits a little bit. You’re the best.’”
LaNeve said it almost made her cry when she received it.
“I got to see his confidence just absolutely bloom over my time as platoon leader. Before I came in, he had been told by his leadership that he doesn’t matter and the unit would be better off without him,” she said. “Which was absolutely not true at all. Every unit needs every person that is assigned to it, and he made such a difference. And it was awesome to finally see him believe that he was awesome and that we needed him.”
Working with her soldiers, she said, is her favorite part of the job.
“That’s definitely been amazing […] watching people go to school and help them with their essays or watch them show me pictures of their kids and being proud or [showing me] their dog or something about them,” LaNeve said. “Getting to know people while also getting the mission done.”
Editor’s note: The article has been updated since its original publishing to correct a misspelling in Caitlin LaNeve’s name.
Kimberly Westenhiser is a freelance writer, photographer, and illustrator living on Vashon Island, Washington. She’s been published in The Seattle Globalist, War Is Boring, and local publications in western Washington State. Her photography has been featured on Foreign Policy and Playboy.
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