Alumna Describes Her Role as a Soldier and as an American

The following is a first-person account from alumna Daniella Poole Mestyanek BA'09

Daniella Poole Mestyanek BA '09

Daniella Poole Mestyanek BA'09 served in Afghanistan as a military intelligence officer. She is now stationed in Fort Campbell, Ky.

Every time I find myself in the middle of Afghanistan’s Registan Desert, running through knee-deep orange clay while trying to protect a map and a compass from the pouring rain or blinding dust, or I’m jumping onto a helicopter with gunfire at my back, or I’m on the floor at my “place of business” when a rocket attack alarm sounds, I ask myself:  “How did I get here?”

The daughter of missionary parents with 15 children, I am an American citizen of Slovakian descent, born in the Philippines,  raised in Brazil, and a resident of eight other countries before finally moving to the U.S. when I was 15 years old.  

I majored in literary studies at UT Dallas.  As an undergraduate, I was a member of the Graduate Translators Association (GTA) and the chess team. For the past three years I have been serving as a military intelligence officer in the U.S. Army.  

As my life and career progress, I am constantly applying the things I learned from my past experiences and my time at UT Dallas.  The University excelled at appreciating a variety of cultural influences and experiences.  As a member of GTA, I studied and experienced the importance of language and the delicate linguistic differences among different cultures. My classmates on the chess team, comprised of students from around the world, were my best friends and remain so to this day. They taught me that while our individual stories may be different, the human experience is essentially the same.  And if we learn to understand each other, our lives will become enriched by the ability to appreciate the differences that make us who we are.  

Carrie Scarabino, Jessica Farrell and Daniella Mestyanek

As female soldiers, 1st Lt. Carrie Scarabino, 2nd Lt. Jessica Farrell and 2nd Lt. Mestyanek serve in the same capacity as men, completing missions that range from patrol to civilian engagement.

As I write this, I am deployed to Afghanistan. Here, I run the operations intelligence office for the U.S. Army aviation brigade— working to protect the pilots, crews and soldiers who conduct air-based missions within the war zone. I research, study and learn everything that I can about the enemy in hopes of predicting where they will attack next. In war games—or the preparation and rehearsal process—I am the friendly version of the insurgents who are trying to kill our soldiers. If the pilots can figure out how to beat me, they can hopefully outsmart and outmaneuver the real enemy and bring the soldiers home alive. My job helps to keep people alive, even if I don’t always get to see it firsthand. That is why I am here.  

I started thinking about the military when I first visited the U.S., at age 14, and was beginning to learn a little about the country and its culture. I had always known that I was American, but had very little concept of what it meant to be one.  

Suddenly, 9/11 dawned and the whole country changed. I remember walking downstairs for breakfast and seeing the live televised reports from Ground Zero. It took several minutes for me to fathom that this horrific sight could possibly be real. I feared that if such an act could happen in New York, then it could happen in places like Los Angeles, where my family lived, as well. I worried about my friends who lived in New York.  I remember thinking that maybe my parents were right about all the evil in the world.  With equal horror, I watched some religious leaders proclaim the attack on America as God’s divine justice on an evil nation.  

Daniella Mestyanek with younger sister Carisa

Mestyanek, who is one of 15 children in her family, visited with younger sister Carisa before deploying to Afghanistan in 2011.

The benefits of citizenship provided me with a sense of gratitude. I have benefited on multiple occasions from being born American, including the ability to attend the University on a mixture of scholarships and federal financial aid programs. The desire to give something back to my country has always been strong, and after 9/11, “giving back” meant military service. After graduating from college, I went to basic training and was commissioned as a military intelligence officer.  

In 2011, I deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.  Shortly after my arrival, I was given the  opportunity to participate in a new Army  program—a Female Engagement Team  (FET)—that would allow me, once again,  to interact with another culture and try to  make a difference. Contrary to what some may believe, we are not fighting the Afghan people but the terrorists who have lately been in control of the country. In order to  successfully beat these insurgents, one of  the Coalition Forces’ main goals is to “win  the hearts and minds” of the local population, including reaching out to the women who make up 51 percent of the population of  the country, something that was ignored for the  first nine years of the war. Due to the Muslim rules of conduct between men and women, it is almost impossible for male soldiers to have any interaction with Afghan women, so select female soldiers increasingly play an important role. For my  part, I feel that I have been  given an incredible opportunity  to unite an appreciation  for cultural sensitivities and  the fight for women’s rights  and freedoms in one job—all  of which are dear to my heart.  

I want to continue to build on the experiences that I have gained from my youth, my time at UT Dallas and my time in the U.S. Army. I don’t know all of the details yet, and life continues to be a constant— but usually pleasant—surprise.

Daniella Poole Mestyanek,

We female soldiers serve in  a variety of roles, from trying  to find out what the women  need and giving candy to their  children, to performing other  actions that are no different  from what male soldiers do—patrol, capture,  search and seizure. The goal is, on one hand, to fight and win this war, and on the other, to not offend the honor and dignity of the people whose support we desperately need. Many Afghans are on the fence about whom they will support in this fight—the Taliban or the Coalition Forces.  Something as simple as having a female soldier to segregate and search the women, which shows that we do have respect for their culture, can mean the difference between throwing in their lot with us or learning how to make bombs to kill us.  

This job gives me the chance to be what I love the most—an oxymoron, someone who doesn’t fit into a mold. I am a military intelligence officer.  It is a desk job where I  develop skills and knowledge  that I will likely use  for the rest of my life,  but it is also a soldier job where I go  on long marches in heavy armor, carry a gun,  engage with the population and complete my  mission—just like any of “the boys.” In both aspects of my job, I know that I help people and I hope that I make a difference that will outlast my presence here. Every time I see the look of  shock that quickly turns to a smile on a little  girl’s face when she realizes I am a woman  after I take off my helmet and dark glasses, I  hope that the knowledge that women are doing  things she had never imagined possible will  somehow make a difference in her life. If not, it is just nice to see the smile and know that I helped to make it happen.  

This job propels me to discover who I am and who I want to be. All my life, I have helped people in one way or another—first as a missionary/ charity worker and now in my capacity as a soldier and an officer. I am realizing all of the many ways that I can make a difference and help people throughout the world. My goal for the future is to earn a master’s degree in international relations with a dual focus on international security policy and the South American continent. I want to continue to build on the experiences that I have gained from my youth, my time at UT Dallas and my time in the U.S. Army. I don’t know all of the details yet, and life continues to be a constant— but usually pleasant—surprise. For a career in public diplomacy, it’s probably good that I like it that way. 

This story appeared in the latest UT Dallas Magazine. Click here for the online edition.

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].