'I want to make a difference:' Soldier in training from Iraq wants to inspire others to follow their dreams

Brian Hill
Fort Leonard Wood

The seat inside the cab of the excavator needs a lot of adjusting so the 4-foot, 11-inch Spc. Zainab Olivo can comfortably operate the equipment. She manipulates a few switches and levers, the diesel engine roars and rumbles, and the boom comes to life. It’s quite a juxtaposition, seeing such a small person operate such a large piece of equipment.

She turns the excavator off and removes her oversized, tinted eye protection. She has a youthful face, and with her small stature, it’s difficult to imagine what she’s experienced.

As a horizontal construction engineer trainee assigned to Company D, 554th Engineer Battalion, 32-year-old Olivo — from Karbala, Iraq — currently spends many of her days at Training Area 244 on Fort Leonard Wood. The large, tracked, earthmoving vehicle she’s learning about this week is just one of several pieces of heavy equipment she has progressed through over the past couple of months.

“It’s something different each week — it’s fun,” she said.

Spc. Zainab Olivo, a horizontal construction engineer trainee assigned to Company D, 554th Engineer Battalion, is originally from Karbala, Iraq. She joined the Army to make a difference and inspire others to follow their dreams. Photo by Brian Hill

Growing up under the regime of Saddam Hussein, however, Olivo remembers repeatedly being told “women have children and obey the man of the house.”

Early on, she knew she wanted more out of life.

“Since I was a kid, I always wanted to be a cop, or a Soldier,” she said — her voice soft, but direct. “I wanted to be something I was told I could never be.”

After 9/11, as talks progressed as to the potential for a change in government in Iraq, Olivo and her family waited anxiously.

“A lot of people were waiting for that day,” she said.

An invasion changed everything

Olivo said she has very vivid memories of the early days of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which officially began on the morning of March 20, when coalition forces crossed the Iraqi border.

“I still remember it like it was yesterday,” she said. “My family has a ranch in Najaf, in the south of Iraq, but we were living in Karbala. My dad decided to take us to the ranch during the war, so we left on March 18, and stayed at the ranch.”

When they heard on the radio that the invasion was a success, Olivo’s father decided to take the family back to Karbala.

“This was in April 2003, and I remember us driving and seeing the U.S. troops for the first time. I saw a long line of Soldiers walking for miles on the sides of the roads, carrying heavy bags and equipment, and I remember me and my sisters were wondering how can a human being be this strong to carry so much and walk. It was very hot, and I could see they were all soaked with sweat. My sisters and I thought the American troops must have a super drug that made them this strong — I was only 14 years old at the time,” she said with a laugh.

Shortly after the invasion, Olivo said she was back in high school.

“One day, I was walking home and out of nowhere bullets started flying between the U.S. military and a Shia militia,” she said. “I got caught in the middle of the fight, but the American Soldiers rushed to pull me out and get me to a safe place. They literally risked their lives to protect me and that’s when I knew initially that I wanted to join the Army.”

Linguist opportunities in a new war

Olivo completed a bachelor’s degree in business in the city of Erbil, in northern Iraq, in 2013, and looked for ways she could earn a living using English.

“I started learning English in school, but I took the initiative to learn more by watching a lot of American movies and listening to music after 2003,” she said.

Her fluency led her to a job with Stars and Stripes in 2014, just as the Islamic State militant group started a new war in the region.

“They came in and took half of Iraq,” she said. “We covered the war — I’ve seen a lot.”

Seth Robson, a reporter with Stars and Stripes, hired Olivo in Erbil as an Arabic linguist in August 2014.

“The Islamic State had captured Mosul, just 50 miles to the west, and a lot of folks were on their way out of the country, but Zainab was eager to ‘go to the battlefield’ and that’s just what we did on her first day on the job,” he said.

Robson said Olivo kept a positive attitude and focused on getting the job done despite the challenges of reporting on war, not only translating Arabic during interviews with residents and Iraqi forces but working with contacts on story leads.

“Every trip Zainab took with us to the front lines was dangerous due to the risks of (improvised explosive devices) — to include booby traps, vehicles, drones and suicide bombers — as well as small arms fire or being captured since none of us were armed and there were Iranian-backed militia in the battlespace,” he said. “These militia were blamed by locals for the headless corpses of enemy fighters that littered the streets during the battle.”

Olivo also helped establish a rapport with displaced ethnic minority Yazidis and Christians who had fled the Islamic State — Robson said she was invaluable at making connections.

“On one occasion, we interviewed female Peshmerga fighters who were battling the militants,” he said. “On another, we visited a liberated church that the enemy had used as a firing position.”

As Iraqi Special Operations Forces moved deeper into Mosul, Robson and Olivo visited battle-damaged neighborhoods “littered with homemade bombs and abandoned improvised weapons and up-armored vehicles.”

“We visited homes that had been turned into ammo dumps and prisons for the Islamic State’s victims,” he said. “On all these assignments, Zainab’s local knowledge and skills as a linguist were vital to Stars and Stripes’ mission in northern Iraq.”

Becoming a Soldier

Olivo arrived at Fort Leonard Wood to start Basic Combat Training with the 2nd Battalion, 10th Infantry Regiment in September, but an injury temporarily sidelined her, and she spent three months in the Warrior Training and Rehabilitation Program.

“I fractured my hip and had to basically restart basic training, but I wouldn’t quit,” she said.

After completing Red Phase — the first three weeks of BCT — she called one of her sisters.

“I asked her if she remembered the day of the invasion in 2003,” she said. “I told her I had just done a ruck march — it was hell, but I did it. There was no magic drug or food that Soldiers get; they just train us well, support us, and that makes us stronger.”

Upon graduation from BCT, Olivo moved on to Advanced Individual Training at the 554th. She told her story to one of her drill sergeants, Staff Sgt. Ramiro Martinez.

“I first heard her story during her initial week here,” he said. “I asked her why she joined the Army and that’s when she told me about her previous service as an Iraqi interpreter.”

Martinez called Olivo “one of the most disciplined Soldiers in the platoon.”

“She has demonstrated repeatedly she’s here to train, learn and move on to bigger things in her career,” he said. “She brings a lot of experience by what she’s been through. Most trainees can only imagine combat scenarios, but she can definitely relate to any of the drill sergeants with combat experience. Her battle buddies will definitely be looking to her for advice in the platoon’s coming final field training exercise.”

Olivo graduates AIT at the end of this month. She enlisted in the Army Reserve, but said she plans to switch to active duty as soon as possible — she has a goal to attend Officer Candidate School and hopefully soon become a U.S. citizen. In the meantime, she said she first wants to go on a deployment to provide linguistics support — she speaks Iraqi, Modern Standard and the Levantine Arabic spoken in Syria, Lebanon and parts of Turkey.

“I can rock the Egyptian, too,” she said. “I want to make a difference. I chose the Army because, in my opinion, they are the toughest, strongest branch. I feel like Soldiers are the first to get in the fight, and I want to be boots on the ground, not behind a desk. I want to be a badass and inspire other women to go after their dreams because I never thought I would be here.”

Read more about Olivo's Military Occupational Specialty — horizontal construction engineer — at https://www.goarmy.com/careers-and-jobs/career-match/mechanics-engineering/design-develop/12n-horizontal-construction-engineer.html.