Some seasons never leave us. No matter how much time passes, I always find my military service to be one of the most catalytic experiences of my life. As a 17-year-old girl from rural Pennsylvania with co-signatures of my parents, I signed up for the United States Army …two months before September 11, 2001.
When our senior high school teacher rolled out a TV for us to watch breaking news of falling twin towers that morning, the seed of my future was planted. Eight months later, I left for basic training just ten days after graduating high school.
Two-and-a-half years of military service took me through South Carolina, Georgia, Maryland, Louisiana, Germany twice, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and the most defining place of that season: Afghanistan.
I volunteered to go to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan as an Army photojournalist with the 11th Public Affairs Detachment. We produced an article six days a week for the Freedom Watch newsletter.
For about six months, I interacted with coalition servicemembers from across 15 nations and with locals and visiting dignitaries. I wrote on everything from Toys for Tots to casualties.
I was the youngest in my unit. I had pudgy baby cheeks, an M16 rifle that tipped the ground when I kneeled, and a keen desire to make a difference.
I interviewed commanding generals and Buddhist monks. I entered villages that had never met the likes of a 5'4" blue-eyed white girl announcing, “Peace. I am a woman and I am here to search you” in Pashto before I took off my kevlar helmet and patted down women and children for explosives.
In a land littered with land mines, I once ran up a hill to capture the perfect shot of a weapons cache exploding in the valley below.
I traveled on convoys of coalition forces in the dark of night and flew in Chinooks with rockstars on a USO tour during the day. I was just 18.
It will require continued wisdom to understand the consequential impact of that time period in my life.
These experiences lie at the root of me…and I’m still working on what that means 12 years later.
After a knee injury and a few surgeries, I was medically separated in December 2004. At 21, I suddenly had to figure out a new path. Even though I didn’t join the Army to pay for college, I used my GI Bill benefits and worked my way up collegiate and professional ranks. Even though I was achieved and awarded, I was still used to representing the uniform. I had yet to figure out what I represented.
For someone who didn’t join the military directly after high school, it may be hard to relate. And that is okay. We all walk different paths. My path just happens to be one that only 1.4% of the nation’s population can actually relate to as a female veteran.
No one will ever truly know the costs and gifts I carry because of the Army.
I slowly navigate the intersections of my depression, PTSD, and how to embrace the freedoms I joined to protect.
I close my eyes and I still remember that spirited, young soldier in Afghanistan and I see that’s where I was welcomed to the world.
That’s where I found my passion for culture and created a list of places I wanted to see as people taught me about their heritage and homes.
These people — from all races, beliefs, and backgrounds — became my brothers and sisters who inspired me to learn.
I’ll take the wounds, joys and all because it offered me eyes to see between dividing lines. It called me to visit about 25 countries. It activated my wanderlust and an open mind. It gave me confidence to study abroad in Europe and live in four corners of the U.S. It molded me into the most objective person I know.
Instead of focusing on what divides us, let’s find out how our paths connect us.
Check out: my portfolio of photos taken in Afghanistan, 2003.