A couple of weeks ago I found out that one of my dearest young friends (a girl who is like a younger sister to me), joined the army.
She did not inform her parents, her brother, or me, before making this decision. The army recruiters in her high school ROTC program swept her up.
They promised her a scholarship for college, after she fights their wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for four years.
College is something we’ve talked about since I met her 8 yrs ago, as a tutor in a Providence refugee resettlement program. In general, education has constantly been part of our conversations. This is how things began.
At one point early on however, it occurred to me that simply teaching the basics of English and math to her and her brother was inadequate. Her family had moved their life to a country with little support and no relatives. Over time we grew closer and our teacher-student relationship morphed into a mentor-mentee friendship.
Tutor sessions at the International Institute led to tutoring at home, science experiments, family dinners, teacher-parent conferences, trips to the beach, walks on the Blvd, and conversations about peer pressure, cultural disconnect and boys. And this is how I began to call her my ‘lil sis. Even when I left Rhode Island for college or internships, we always made time to get together and stayed in touch.
Then two years ago, her family moved to a small town with lots of factories in South Dakota, joining an Ethiopian community and family friends. This time, the miles apart made it difficult to stay in touch. She got a job at McDonalds, working 6 days a week and found herself a boyfriend. Meanwhile, I started a film program in NYC and graduate school.
One of the good things about moving to S.D. was that she entered a better school than the ones she attended in Rhode Island. Of course, a “better” high school still does not necessarily make college seem like a realistic goal when it is not affordable.
A couple of weeks ago her brother and I talked, vented and expressed our concern and shock with one another. At this point we agree that expressing this concern to his sister would be detrimental– it was too late. She’s going to Texas to start basic training this week. And who am I to question her judgement? She sees this as an opportunity for a better future, which is quite possible. I’ve seen it.
Crystal, one of my oldest childhood friends, joined the army out of high school. She too joined the army because she saw it as a gateway to college. Now, eight years later, she is considering making a career in the army since she has earned the rank of a sergeant. She has already completed two tours in Iraq where she earned a purple heart, and is leaving this month for her third tour. Crystal is now independent, owns her own car (which she loves talking about!) and is in love and happily married to another soldier.
Several years ago I visited Crystal in Texas after her first tour in Iraq.
We hung out in a refreshing little pool with her army friends in their apartment courtyard and joked liked old times. Crystal is one of the most hilarious people I have ever met and she is a master storyteller. She has a way of making any experience sound interesting or funny, not excluding her tour in Iraq. “Girl, you know what a wind storm looks like…?!” I listened to her stories and saw them coming alive in my head, imagining her in dessert wind storms, hauling equipment out of Humvees and tanks. She talked about the kids in Iraq, how it was hard to know when they were coming to the US soldiers to get candy or cause them harm.
As interesting as she made it all seem, I didn’t want her to go back. I knew that even though she didn’t talk about the violence in detail, she was constantly in danger there. I wanted her to leave the army and come home.
If you wanted to leave, how could you do it? If you got pregnant would they allow you to leave?
I had all these questions and she and her friends found them amusing, but I was dead serious. Finally she said in a matter of fact voice, “Once I signed that paper, my thoughts and my body no longer belonged to me. I belong to the Army now. They basically own me.”
While I do not believe that war is ever the answer, I have an incredible respect for soldiers. Soldiers like Crystal, a purple heart winning Sergeant from Providence Rhode Island and my lil sis, an Ethiopian refugee with a beautiful heart and a love for drawing. They are just two women looking for a better life. A life of independence, with choices and stability.
I won’t be in enlisting in this lifetime, but I hope that my lil sis will call on my dear friend now that they are in the army together. I think that at this time, Crystal will be a better mentor than I ever was.
Hopefully they will be safe and home soon. And as they reach and obtain their dreams and independence, may they both know this: Soldier, we love you.
This song, written and sang by Rita Martinson during Vietnam, has a timeless message. When I listen to it I think of my girls and I wish for peace.