Waco resident Teresa Rockensock, 47, got more than she bargained for when she joined the U.S. Army. “When I joined the military, I thought, what could happen in two years?” she said. All she wanted was to get in and out to earn money for college.
Growing up the oldest girl of six siblings in her native Minnesota, she worked on a farm, attended high school and helped care for the younger children until she joined the service, three weeks after graduation.
Basic training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina, wasn’t bad for the physically fit woman. For a cross country runner who had worked hard on a farm, she didn’t mind it at all. Because of her short duration with the military, she had limited choices, so she chose the position of a cook.
After basic and advanced training, Rockensock was assigned to Fort Hood in Killeen. It wasn’t long before she found herself on the short list to be deployed. She turned 19 soon after she arrived at Fort Hood.
It was a challenge to cook for some 1,200 individuals, but Rockensock took to it well. Her tools of the trade were massive pots with oar-like stirrers, among other things. She got pretty good at it, even making garnishes with food, such as roses made from tomatoes and swans from apples. Fortunately, she didn’t have to wash the dishes or peel potatoes. She could crack and shell two eggs at one time.
She also did all the shopping and would fill up two “deuce and half” trucks (2½ ton trucks) with supplies.
Those deploying overseas only got a short notice before they took a commercial flight to Saudi Arabia. “It never crossed my mind that we might be deployed,” Rockensock said.
They stayed at the Port of Dammam, Saudi Arabia, for two weeks, waiting for trucks and heavy equipment. Often, they didn’t know where they were, as they had made stops in other places, as well.
The first time Rockensock cooked, they had convoyed for 18 to 20 hours to the middle of nowhere in the desert. Rockensock cooked breakfast and dinner — “everything was prepared from cans,” she said — in two pop-up trailers, while everyone ate MREs for lunch. She was the only female cook.
Attached to the 62nd Engineers, they would move to the next location, packing everything up each time. In addition, Rockensock carried her M-16, a gas mask and a variety of other tools, making for a nice, heavy load. Rations were dropped by air, and they would have to retrieve them.
The dust, she said, was everywhere. They did their best to keep all the equipment free of sand, but it was a challenge. They once went through a sandstorm so bad, she couldn’t see her hand in front of her face. They also fed a contingent of some 500 people from the 212th Engineers reserve unit.
They were gradually making their way toward Iraq. The engineers had to repair roads deliberately destroyed to slow down movement or clear roadways of possible IEDs (improvised explosive devices).
During the middle of their journey, Operation Desert Storm was declared. They often had to don special outfits when a siren sounded for incoming gas attacks. She said people would shoot at them and she saw the Scud missiles fly and the Patriots respond. The biggest threat, however, was the gas, she said.
But that wasn’t always her biggest enemy. Her blond hair and blue eyes attracted men from all over, who wanted to touch her hair or her body. She once was cornered in a building by a lieutenant and jumped out the window to protect herself. Fortunately, she had made a friend on the flight over, Sgt. Neil Mala, whom Rockensock later married.
“They came up to her like she was a movie star,” Mala, a medic attached to the unit, said of the men who encountered her overseas.
Rockensock and the others were reassigned to the 20th Engineers. Shortly thereafter, just before leaving, she was driving a truck and hit something hard, injuring her back. It’s never been the same since. She returned stateside in April 1991, and when her time was up in June, she extended three more months to prepare for life after the military. She did the rest of her time in the Inactive Ready Reserves.
She was awarded the Kuwait Liberation Medal (each soldier got one) by King Fahd, among her other medals, for helping to liberate Kuwait.
Rockensock eventually became a licensed vocational nurse, and she and Mala have been married since December 1991. They have three children and one grandchild.
Today, she is a “Kitchen Angel” volunteer at the Veterans One Stop in Waco, where she gets up at 5 a.m. every Wednesday to join others to help cook breakfast and lunch for the veterans.
Despite her injury (she had neck and back surgery in 2001), Rockensock is happy with her service.
“I would do it all over again,” she said. “I might even do a longer time in the military.”
This year marks the 70th year of officially recognizing women in military service,according to the National Association of American Veterans. On June 12, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed a bill known as the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, allowing women to serve as regular service members. On June 9, 2017, Texas Senate Bill 805 designated June 12 as Women Veterans Day in Texas.