Every soldier's first "war story" is the day they decided to enlist. It's a story commonly swapped between soldiers during chow out in the field, during a slow-paced, non-formation, 20 minutes out and 20 minutes back run, or after an exhausting day at the range while you are on the bus ride back to the barracks. In these conversations, I keep it light, funny if I can, and simple.
It's when non-military people ask me why I joined that I have the hardest time coming up with an answer. When other soldiers ask, I know my "why" really doesn't matter to them, because either way we are still in the shit together. But when a civilian asks me, I get defensive. It feels rare that the question isn't shrouded in a preconceived notion or a personal agenda. I want to give them an answer that they want hear. One they understand. But it is easier, sometimes, to superficially regurgitate the Army Strong slogans and sentiments.
A couple of months ago, my 6-year-old came up to me with one of her super-determined faces. In her Minnie Mouse voice she said, "Mommy, I never want to be in the Army." Surprised by her sudden diversion from her Monster High marathon I asked, "Why not?"
"Because people in the Army die."
I put down my book.
"Yeah honey, sometimes they do, but not all of them. I didn't die in the Army, and daddy didn't." She turned her head slightly as she tried to work it out. I wiped a loose blonde curl from her eyes.
"How did you and daddy not die then?"
I pulled her up on my lap and surrounded her with a hug. "We were lucky," I replied. I know it is only a matter of time until she asks me why. And I want to be able to tell her the truth when she is ready to hear it, anecdotes and half-truths aside.
I didn't go for politics. I might have been one of Michigan State University's least politically inclined pre-law students. I didn't waste my studying or beer drinking time getting wrapped up in the policies of the privileged few up on the hill in DC. My cohorts spent all their breath arguing politics with their professors and classmates. They marched with megaphones and magic-markered signs, calling for action. Trying to prove that their still teenage minds could have a conviction that strong. Grass stained tight Levis from sit-ins were a badge of honor in some crowds.
I couldn't go for fame or glory because it was post 9/11, but still pre-invasion. The public was making up its mind on how they would treat their sons and daughters if they came home from fighting. I grew up under the suburban judgment of my dad's three tours in Vietnam. I didn't know what to expect. As a young girl, I marched with my dad in the Memorial Day parades once they started including Vietnam Veterans in the late eighties. These veterans would meet up in an abandoned parking lot. They shook hands and swapped stories as if they had known each other their entire lives, even if it was the first time they had met. When their group would march up to where my mom and my siblings were posted, I would run to my dad to join them waving my little American flag. Nothing could penetrate the pride I felt to be included in this group of brave men. Holding my dad's hand, we would march together. Him in-step with the soldier in front of him, eyes front. Me bouncing next to him, smiling and wondering why the crowd wasn't waving back.
Thirty years after the last U.S. helicopters left Saigon, my Army was running the beautiful trails along the Monterey Bay coast. It was like a parade once a month and people would line the cobbled streets waiting for us to run by. We wore our cleanest PT uniforms, made sure we had all of our unit flags and colors displayed proudly, and sang cadences at the top of our lungs for the crowd. People would wait for us for hours to cheer, shout insults, wave flags, and spit at us. I have never participated in a parade since.
I didn't go with the comforts of a peace-time enlistee. It wasn't about college money or some of the veteran benefits I knew about. Some of my classmates in high school were set to join the military after they graduated back in the late nineties. They said it was for college money, or special training, or just that they had to get the hell out of our Detroit suburb. I didn't understand that "why" then. And as the probably hundredth person to ask, maybe they just didn't tell me the truth. Or maybe they just didn't know themselves.
My family has had someone in the Army in every generation and for every war dating back to World War I. As veteran legacies, odds were pretty good that one of the four of us kids would join at some point. It wasn't a surprise when my older brother Tony joined one year out of high school. The shock came with four months left in his four year enlistment when I signed up. I am only the second female from my family to join; the other was a World War I nurse. I bathed in everyone's "whys" and their insinuation that I couldn't handle the Army. They said I was too sensitive, too trusting, too innocent for war. I remember my sister's voice over the phone, "You don't have to do this. Why? Why would you do this?" And I remember saying back, "How could I not?"
I went in knowing a desert was in my future when the television screens filled with countless hours of ash covered sobbing police, firemen, and civilians. These tears rocked me awake from the fathoms of my sheltered academic slumber. I remember cramming into a completely silent Buffalo Wild Wings with my eyes glued to one of the fifty television screens all tuned to watch our President address the nation on September 11th. "Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts." The hair stood up on my arms and the back of my neck. When the bar erupted in applause after the President closed his speech with "...and God bless America," I knew my life path was changing.
If my Mustang could have driven more than 30 miles without leaking oil, I probably would have gone to New York that night. Everything else that seemed to matter so much up to that point, became frivolous to me. It didn't matter if my boyfriend was mad at me if they were still pulling bodies out of the rubble in NYC. My Portuguese and philosophy minors filled up my fall semester that year and I all I could think about in class was how I was wasting my time in a pointless pursuit. I knew this apathy towards my chosen path was leading me somewhere else.
My generation got the call and I stood up to answer. As the twin towers burned and collapsed to the ground, the rules of my safe naïve life changed. And when the ash settled over more than three-thousand lost lives, I had to move. To do... something. True, I had no idea what I was getting myself into or what would be in store for me. All I knew was that I was willing to stake my life to try and prevent another tragedy like the one burned into every television screen. I am proud to be a part of the less than one percent of the US who've served in the military. We stand together, reasons for joining aside, as a group who knows what it is like to write a blank check for your life. So hopefully, when it is the right time to talk to my daughter about why her mommy decided to join the Army, I will be able to be honest with her and tell her the simplest of truths.
Because I had to.