I first put on the uniform when I was nine years old. My sister Bethanie and I were playing army, crawling around on the grass in suburban New Jersey, trying to spy into our two older sisters’ bedroom windows. We got spooked, as some young troops do on their first mission, and retreated to the woods that bordered our home. We blended almost seamlessly into the spring green forest and deep brown earth that was our refuge. Aside from our laughter, you might never know we were there, thanks to the camouflage pattern that splattered over our thin arms. I didn’t know it then, but the very same battle dress uniform would cover me nine years later, when I signed up for Reserve Officer Training Corps in my freshmen year of college.
Four years later, a newly minted second lieutenant — Bethanie — gave me the oath of office and ushered me into the officer ranks of the U.S. Armed Forces. My other two older sisters, Pamella and Suzanne, had forgiven the failed spying incident by then, and each pinned a gold bar to my shoulders. Bethanie had just commissioned a week earlier into the Army National Guard and Suzanne was then a first lieutenant in the active duty Army. I can’t remember many prouder days than the one where I stood shoulder to shoulder with all three of my older sisters.
Time and war separated us physically, as is the case in many of today’s military families, but my sisters were nearly always present in my thoughts, especially during my brief deployment to Afghanistan. Suzanne and Bethanie had each left a year of their young twenties in Iraq, and so when it was my turn to journey to the desert, I tried not to flinch. It was also around this time that I solidified my thoughts that Pamella was truly the smartest of us all for not having joined the service. My few months in Zabul province, Afghanistan, were basically uneventful in the eyes of the public. I witnessed no death and little destruction. I came back unscathed, in the fact that I never shot my weapon at anything other than a still piece of paper a stone’s throw away. But there is something about being over there that does scar you, in some fashion, anyway. I didn’t really believe this until I heard it straight from the mouth of the Secretary of Defense I served under, Robert M. Gates. He came back to his undergraduate alma mater, the College of William & Mary, to discuss his new book: Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War. I joined more than 700 people on a Saturday afternoon for the event, clueless as to how deeply his words would affect me. He spoke of the infuriating Washington bureaucracy and the nights he woke up with thoughts of my fellow soldiers tumbling in his mind. Mr. Gates was the first senior official I heard speak authentically about today’s wars and how they have impacted those who fight them. He said, “I came to believe that no one who had actually been in combat could walk away without scars, without some measure of post-traumatic stress.” I had read this line before, in the excerpt of his book published online, but when he spoke the words aloud, they became truer to me than I thought possible. I started to shift in my seat, uncomfortable with the realization that I was once part of the crowd this man lost sleep over. My eyes took on that burning feeling of imminent tears, and a few moments later, they came. I wept in the middle of an auditorium of strangers. I didn’t want to count myself, or my sisters, among the scarred, but it was clear now. There was no coming back from the war without them.
Georganne Hassell is a writer, editor and former Air Force public affairs officer. She currently works at the Reves Center for International Studies at The College of William & Mary.