I met Jen on a warm July evening this past year. She waltzed onto the patio of the apartment building I live in to join for a mid-summer eve’s barbecue. I instantly liked her. She has charisma, but not the type that makes you feel bad if you were to lack it. She was the life of the party, but the inclusive kind. She bonded with my mom and told crazy stories of her time living in Morocco, of teaching sex-ed in nursing homes, of dating a professional athlete.
As I got to know her, I got to like her even more. She is the type of girl who has your back, who laughs at your jokes, who is literally up for anything. You could invite Jen over and serve her moldy bread and she’d say “cool, thanks!” Jen loves to party, and although she barely drinks, she’ll be the one to stay until the last of the group wants to go home. She is also super cute-she rocks crop tops and has highlights. I think it would be fair to say that she looks like a girl who cares about her appearance.
She doesn’t look like a girl who would say things like “weapons qualification”, “deployment”, “urban warfare”. But she does.
Jen grew up between Delaware and New York, the child of immigrants. Her father, an NYPD, was on his day off on 9/11. When the first tower was struck, he went to the center of the chaos. Jen remembers not hearing from him for three days, as he was, she would later find out, helping at ground zero and sleeping in a nearby church. In days, weeks, and months after, she found herself thinking: “what would prompt a group of people to do something so atrocious?” She heard people spewing hate about Muslims and found herself appalled by their lack of understanding, their misplaced hatred. She began researching international relations and became interested in being a translator, bridging divides between cultures.
In the charter high school she went to, there was a military recruiter who would come and talk to students. He would chat with kids and woo them with pizza lunches. He told her that if she joined the military, she could become a translator. The military would send her to learn a language, and pay for 100% of her college education.
This sounded great to Jen, especially because she was planning on taking out loans for college. It was 2003, however, and the war in Iraq had started, so she told him she was concerned about being deployed. She definitely didn’t want to go to war.
The recruiter informed her that the National Guard served a dual function in responding to federal and state emergencies, and that they were needed more by state governments. If she joined National Guard, therefore, she probably wouldn’t be deployed overseas.
She was sold. Her mother was not, and needed to be, since Jen was 17 and needed a parent signature to join. She told her mom: “Look: college will be free, I get to learn Arabic so I can be a translator and I won’t get deployed”.
“I thought of it as civil service, I thought I was doing something good” she said. Her father eventually convinced her mother, who signed the papers.
May 15 2003 was Jen’s graduation from high school, followed by senior week activities. Jen looks like the type of person who would love senior week activities. But she didn’t get to go, because on May 16, she boarded a plane to boot camp.
Jen told me, “that’s when I was like, my recruiter downplayed everything”. Most people were young, but she, being 17, was the youngest person there. She had to do an intake physical exam- running, sit ups, push-ups. She only did 3 push ups in 2 minutes, which put her on a DOS Program, or “drop on site”, meaning she had to automatically do push ups whenever a few particular drill sergeants appeared in front of her.
Boot camp was ten weeks long, and included a lot of cleaning, physical training, weapons training, land navigation and marching. Projecting, I asked about her emotional state, if she was crying all the time, wondering if she’d made a horrible mistake.
She laughed. “No,” she explained, “it’s my personality to find humor in everything. I kind of roll with the punches.”
“Did you make friends?” I asked.
“So many. I used to be really shy in high school when talking to strangers. The army helped me to break out of my shell, connect with people from different backgrounds, find common ground with anyone”.
It also taught her to do push-ups- by the end of bootcamp, she could do 44 in 2 minutes.
After a summer of bootcamp, she started college at the University of Delaware. For the most part, that year, she lived the life of a typical college freshman. She went to class, made friends, worked at the library, went to parties. One weekend a month she was required to board a bus and head to Bethany Beach, Delaware, for training.
Disappointment came the next year. Since she chose to do “split option” (go to boot camp and then do a year of college before any individualized training), she lost her spot to learn Arabic with the translator program. The way the army works, if someone else is available sooner, they’ll take them. Jen’s agreement with her mom was that she could be in the army as long as she didn’t miss any school, so, true to her word, Jen had to pick an army job that would only require training that could be done over the summer. She ultimately decided to getting training in administration as a human resources specialist and joined a military police unit. Sophomore year she went back to college and one weekend per month would drill with her military police unit about 20 minutes from campus.
And that was pretty much it for a while. There was about 2-3 weeks of annual training in the summer, and throughout the year, there would be calls for service (for example- hurricane relief, Presidential inaugurations), some mandatory and some optional.
Senior year, her unit was deployed to the border of Mexico on a 3-week mission. When they returned from their mission, there was a General that came to a ceremony to greet them. “I thought he was there to congratulate us on our mission,” she told me. There was a quick moment of congratulations and then “You’re getting deployed”.
Her heart sank. She was a semester shy of college graduation.
During pre-deployment, her unit didn’t know what their mission was and didn’t know where they were being sent. They had combat training, lifesaver training, training that would hopefully prepare them for the most difficult, the most violent of situations. In retrospect, boot camp seemed like summer camp. She struggled with the “what-ifs”. She couldn’t imagine having to make decisions in split seconds that would impact entire lives.
During this time, she had to put together her will. Beau Biden, Joe Biden’s son, was the person to sit down with her and go over her will. She told him how her mom was struggling with the fact that she was being deployed. “At your deployment ceremony, come find me and introduce me to your mom,” he told her.
At Jen’s deployment ceremony, Beau Biden was true to his word. He found her and her mom, gave her mom a hug, wrote down his personal cell phone number and told her “you call me if you need anything.”
Then, Jen was deployed. Her unit landed in Kuwait for a few weeks of training, then they got their mission. They were going to Baghdad to train Iraqi police. Jen felt an overwhelming sense of release. She was doing something she believed in–training police to help restore peace in their country.
Her unit lived on an army base in Baghdad, and she shared a trailer with another girl. Jen described the conditions as much better than average-they both had mattresses and were lucky enough that the unit there before them had left a television for DVDs and a couch. But it wasn’t smooth sailing. They got bombed all the time. The first day she was there, she was going to the bathroom when her base was bombed. She didn’t even have time to put her pants back on as she ran out to the cement block where they were supposed to go during attacks. It was 2007 and the highest point of sectarian violence.
I asked her if she connected with any local people. “ Of course,” she told me. She would talk to the Iraqis and ask them about their stories. Some of them were choosing to stay and try to improve things in their country despite many others fleeing to seek asylum elsewhere.
She also began collecting items that her mom and friends sent from back home- toys, candy, women’s clothing. She and her roommate would bring them to women’s shelters in the area around their base. At first, some men in her unit would make fun of them for doing this. They saw everyone on the outside of base as potential threats, despite most Iraqis being victims of violence themselves. After a while, she saw a shift in their attitudes. The guys in her unit started joining them, started having tea and bread with the locals where before, they would scoff at the food. She found that as soon as people became humanized–not a number, or statistic, but an actual person–barriers were broken down.
One of the unintended benefits of the army was the perspective it gave her, which she thinks it gave other people too. The perspective of, even if you don’t agree with people, you still support them. You put aside your differences to make your relationship work. So many people in her unit were completely different than her- political ideologies, backgrounds, interests. But in the army, you still need to find common ground, still need to be able to have a conversation with people you don’t agree with. You still need to be willing to put your own safety on the line to protect theirs.
“Even the people I couldn’t stand, I still had their backs,” she told me.
Her unit was in Iraq for 11 months. Every unit, it seemed, was losing people–people were dying or getting hurt. The entire time they were there, she told me, they didn’t lose anyone and no one got severely hurt. She attributes that to why she doesn’t have PTSD.
When she did return and had to go back to University of Delaware to do her senior year again, she did have a hard time adjusting. People would complain about their hair, or something else so inane and she would find herself feeling isolated from them and from the culture that engulfs so many college students.
She did finish senior year, however, and afterward went abroad again to Morocco. She got a waiver to go live and work for a US State Department program teaching English, which took her through the rest of her inactive time in the army.
She ended her National Guard service as a Specialist- having served 6 years of active National Guard duty, 1 of those years being deployed overseas.
I asked her, in retrospect, knowing all she does now, if she would have made the same decision to join at 17.
“I don’t know,” she said thinking, “If I knew the experience would be exactly the same, I would do it. But if I knew it would be like the experience of most other veterans, I wouldn’t.” Most meaning people who lose friends to warfare violence, people who have to make extremely difficult decisions, who have to make the choice to save one person’s life over another’s.
Jen’s response to the question I asked, would you do it again, made me think. How many of us would say we would make the same decisions in life, had we known it would turn out the way it did? Despite challenges, setback, heartbreak, disappointment. Probably quite a few.
I think that speaks to the beauty of life, the fact that we are tied to our experiences because they make us who we are. Jen is right–her experience could have been much worse. But it still was hard. She still sacrificed a lot, was put in situations that she hadn’t planned on, took risks, suffered disappointments and setbacks and found herself on the other end still saying she would do it all over again.
When we look back on periods of our lives, the trials and tribulations tend to look purposeful, like they happened for a reason to teach us or take us somewhere. We don’t take chances because it’s guaranteed it will be smooth sailing. We take chances because we are hoping to thread together a story with meaning. A story that has joy to compensate for sorrow and purpose to balance out monotony. Above all, ultimately, a story that is ours.