When Machin McHargue returned to the U.S. from an eight-month deployment as a trauma room medic at a hospital in Mosul, Iraq, in the midst of that country’s chaos and sectarian reprisals leading up to nationwide elections in 2004, her mother said that something in her eyes had changed. “She actually told me, you’re not my little girl anymore.” With the hospital situated precariously at the end of an airport runway, the suffocating heat, the constant threat of violence and the stench of death, McHargue and her fellow soldiers saw gruesome things that they will never forget. Certain images still haunt her.
A handsome, blue-eyed soldier in his mid-30s who’d been doing a public relations campaign came in on a stretcher. He’d been shot under his armpit by a sniper on a rooftop two miles away who had been shooting at American soldiers for weeks; he looked at her, reached out and grabbed her arm as they were bringing him in, and pleaded for help. “I said, we got you. You just keep breathing, we’re gonna take care of you.”
That soldier died. At this point of telling the story, McHargue’s eyes welled up. Immediately after that, the man who shot him was brought in. In her role, she’s taken an oath to care for everyone, no matter how despicable she might find them to be. “It pushes everybody to be a better person,” she said, adding that the sniper lived. “You have to push all your anger and hatred aside, and you have to take care of that person because it’s the right thing to do.”
It’s not surprising that young men and women sent into the heart of battle lose a piece of themselves in combat. The experience was emotionally and physically wrenching for McHargue: She ultimately returned home after being diagnosed with acute renal failure, having lost 30 pounds in one month. “I will never be the same person I was before I left. It’s not easy for me to be affectionate with people; it’s not easy for me to be close to people,” she added.
When growing up, her grandmother always advised her to graduate from high school, join the Army and get out of Dodge. Raised in the small town of Tallasee, Alabama, McHargue was influenced by her family in a range of ways. Her uncle fought in Vietnam, her brother served in the military and her cousin served in the U.S. Navy as well. Her grandmother instilled the value of hard work and respect for everyone. As a young child visiting her, McHargue would rise at 6:30 a.m. on Saturdays to clean the entire house from top to bottom. “I loved to do it! It was fun to me,” she added.
As a young woman, McHargue played softball, basketball and the trombone in the Elmore County High School band (until she switched to drums). She played with G.I. Joe instead of Barbie. The one time her mother put her in ballet class, she sat in the corner and cried, and she remembers being picked on for being gay long before she knew what the word meant.
She clearly recalls when she came out to her grandmother, who was born during the Great Depression. “She looked at me and said, ‘I don’t really understand, but if that’s what you want to do—I love you, okay,’” said McHargue. There was no big brouhaha about it. “That was huge for me to hear from her when I was 16 years old.”
At the time of this interview in late May, McHargue’s work day begins early. At the crack of 4:30 in the morning, she leaves for physical training (some combination of plyometric and endurance work) at Fort Hood, an hour north of Austin. After breakfast, she reports to work, primarily working on health care data processing for her 750-soldier unit. How’re the soldiers doing physically and mentally? Who needs financing for extra caretaking? The answers to those types of questions translate into numbers for her superiors.
As a squad leader for two years prior to that, McHargue was essentially a life coach, a job she called the “most rewarding and most challenging” she’s ever done. She dealt with the myriad problems that any soldier can confront at a given moment: chronic pain, significant injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder, marital problems and more. Figuring out what approach to take—when there are competing interests and flaring tempers—is no small task. “It’s about getting soldiers to understand that we’re trying to protect them,” she said. “My job is to transition them back into the civilian sector or the force.”
It can be argued that McHargue’s not good at being a good civilian. Why? Her partner,
Meg Haley, put it best when she said that civilians tend to speak in nuances, while soldiers are very direct. On paper, Haley and McHargue seem like opposites: Haley is the artistic creative dreamer type. A former teacher at Austin Montessori School, she is wrapping up her Master of Liberal Arts degree at St. Edward’s University and recently landed a copywriting position for Dell’s Global Brand Creative. McHargue, of course, is the logical, rational type-A soldier.
The couple met when McHargue was the medic for the Austin women’s rugby team at the time and Haley was a newbie. Haley was mourning the sudden death of a close friend, and McHargue sweetly suggested the team come by to comfort her with silly movies and companionship. The two built up a strong friendship before starting to date a few months after first meeting.
Despite their differences on paper, the couple’s mutual love of fine food and drinks, combined with open communication and an overall sense of balancing out each other’s personality quirks, has made for a healthy long-term relationship (their fifth anniversary is in October). “We compromise, we work through things, because at the end of the day we both really feel that our individual lives are enhanced by having the other person in it.”
The couple loves their cozy home in north Austin, situated in a diverse area that boasts a mosque, a Baptist church, an Asian Cultural Center and several bars. With a landscaped backyard and garden, their furry family has room to explore: Moby, a pit-boxer mix, Soda, a deaf pit-mutt and King George the cat.
“If it’s up to Machin, she will often request a date night of just the two of us on the deck outside with beers or wine and hours to spend talking about our day’s work, dreams, politics and our future,” Haley said.
McHargue’s arm tattoo bears the phrases “Do nothing. Be the change. Know fear.” The first is inspired by the book Zen and the Art of Doing Nothing; the second is by Gandhi, and the last one is a takeoff on those “No Fear” T-shirts from the 1990s. “In order to conquer your fear, you have to know it and look it in the eye,” McHargue explained. She’s also the DIY queen of the household: Give her a tool box and some glue, and she’s on it. She’s pursing a bachelor’s of liberal studies with a focus in sociology through an online program at Excelsior College. She plans to wrap it up later this year when Haley finishes her master’s program.
With 12 years of active duty service under her belt, McHargue is only eight years. She just applied for three full-time active Guard Reserve positions, and beyond earning her master’s degree, she wants to have a family with Haley in the coming years. Her career will be owning a business with Haley, most likely, a restaurant. An October trip to New Orleans, a city neither woman has ever visited, will serve as their fifth anniversary celebration.
Last year’s repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell means that McHargue no longer refers to Haley as her “roommate.” Although her partner still can’t be covered under her health insurance, McHargue takes a patient and optimistic view of the future. “You’ve gotta give people a minute to digest [change]. We are there to do a mission. I’m not a gay soldier. I’m a soldier.”