Interview with a Soldier
Location: Tucson (by way of Fort Huachuca)
Music: “Zero” by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Meal: IHOP special
I waited for Tess against the wall of a back booth of IHOP eagerly awaiting tales of the former athlete, West Point scholar, and Army captain.
A tall slender girl with sparkly earrings came in, looked at my position in the booth a bit awkwardly, and sat down. I later learned that she preferred to sit in the corner herself as opposed to the position with her back to the room that left her exposed. “But don’t worry about it, she said gently, “It’s all part of my therapy to be comfortable exposed….” Apparently she didn’t trust my stellar combat skills to fend off any attackers should they come up behind her.
Tess, with a ballerina type figure and long eyelashes looked exactly the opposite of what I expected an Afghanistan seasoned soldier to look like. “It’s kind of fun to be a girl again and put on eyeliner,” remarked Tess. In the military women were encouraged to be rather androgynous. “Our uniform couldn’t be too tight, we couldn’t wear too much makeup, and 3 inch heels were considered provocative.”
With impressive grades, SAT scores, and state track and field titles, Tess could have gone to any college or had any career she wanted. However, she gave up couture for camo….and willingly.
“One of my older brothers had Down Syndrome and I grew up taking care of him. I guess I knew that my life would always be one of service. Perhaps that is the hubris of youth—believing we are all meant to do something profound.” Even though Tess got into multiple top tier schools like Columbia, she knew West Point was her destiny.
West Point: The preparation
West Point certainly isn’t a college on Playboy’s top ten list of party schools. It was rigorous in and out of the classroom. “We marched to breakfast. We were told how to hang our clothes. And the few women (1 for every 8 men) were always eyed suspiciously.”
Those few women were also competitive and vindictive. After a major disagreement, one woman decided to get back at Tess by spreading rumors that Tess was promiscuous with the other men. “This is probably the worst lie someone could spread about you in a military academy. My reputation was soiled for 4 years.”
Thus Tess couldn’t wait to get out, leave the rumors behind and be deployed. “9/11 happened during my sophomore year. So we all knew where we were going. I was ready. I wanted to serve. I had few friends so I spent my remaining years just preparing to be the best leader I could.”
And then, at age 23 Tess was promoted to Lieutenant and sent to Afghanistan to command a platoon of 31 soldiers, almost all older than she was. It was the first time she had ever been overseas.
Afghanistan: Sleeping with a gun
Tess was sent to Kabul and Bagram, an old airfield once held by Russians. She received her wish and was given a platoon within the military police, the closest to infantry or action that a woman was allowed to join. “Leading a platoon is kind of like being a mom,” Tess said. You have to know when to be mean and when to be nice.” You also have to know if you are using guns or grenade launchers, a decision most women are unfamiliar with.
Just like in West Point, Tess was sensitive about her gender and didn’t want any repeat negative gossip. ”I needed to be a platoon leader first and a woman second,” she said.
However forgetting to be a woman isn’t always easy.
“I saw Afghanistan differently than the men,” she said. “The male soldiers merely looked at Afghanistan and saw it as problem to be fixed. I looked at it and saw a more holistic picture.“ Tess understood that years of culture are not easily undone.
“It’s one thing to see a photo of a woman in a burka. It’s another thing to see them walking around in it, knowing that they want to wear it because it makes them feel safe. They really didn’t want people to see their faces.“
Tess also had to forget any nurturing tendencies. In war, no one is trustworthy, not even the big eyed Afghani children that would hang out near the camp and befriend the soldiers. “Yes, they were cute,” Tess said, “But I had to treat them like the enemy. This cute dark haired child could have a bomb strapped to him and I needed to be prepared to kill him to save my platoon. I would mentally run scenarios in my mind all the time so that I was ready to shoot the child, the interpreter, or anyone that was suspicious.”
Lastly, Tess found the decree to “win over the Afghani people” a bit difficult.
“We would drive by in our armored cars with the American flag waving but Afghanis didn’t know who we were. These people didn’t have TV! They lived in shacks by the river. So some would cheer us and some would throw rocks at us, and we would act accordingly to whoever the villagers thought we were that day.”
Return to the US—Fort Huachuca and Family Life
Although soldiers that go abroad may feel they have put a stopwatch on life, they return to see that life has carried on without them. Readjustment is hard, as life in the US moves at a totally different pace and in totally different colors.
Tess came back to the states and worked in for the Army in both law enforcement and in leadership development. But readjusting the American life after Afghanistan was challenging. “I had spent a year wearing a gun to bed, alert at every noise, ready to kill should I have to. It was a bit hard to come back, feel safe and want to talk about shopping with the other girls. I mean, yes I like shopping but……“
It wasn’t just memories of Afghanistan that made it challenging to come back. Right before deployment Tess had been sexually assaulted by another officer. And during deployment she got divorced when her husband left her for another woman. “While away I didn’t have to deal with any of that as there were more immediate risks at hand.” However as soon as Tess’ feet hit US soil the pain of both those occurrences came reeling back. “I thought to myself, I’ve been assaulted, deported, and divorced. Now what? Is something positive ever going to happen?”
Luckily for Tess, it did. She reconnected with a fellow solider, Josh, whom she had met overseas. Josh was “solid” and someone that Tess really trusted. “Unlike all these other men in my life, I knew he would fight for me.” After a cautious entry into courting, Tess and Josh were married four years later and then had a son, Blake. She showed me his tow-headed photo. “Isn’t he perfect?”
Although Tess seemed like a natural mother she admits that she was petrified to have a child and prolonged it for as long as possible. “I was so messed up emotionally-I had spent years being numb and wasn’t prepared to love someone so intently. In a way a child is a weakness; you lose yourself to do everything for this other person.”
However, Tess had gone through years of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) therapy and other counseling in efforts to help her successfully manage her marriage and motherhood. “Marriage counseling is essential for soldiers,” Tess states. “Josh had anger issues and I had no emotions…we both needed to change.”
Now, on a happier path, Tess and Josh are planning on having a second child which makes Tess debate what role she wants to play as a mother. “Part of me wants to stay home and be with them but I am also scared—what if I cannot hack it as a stay at-home-mom? I’ve been so good at everything else-what if I fail at motherhood?” With programs, schedules, and army commands, Tess has been on autopilot for most of her life. “Being stay-at-home mom would be like jumping off the tracks.”
She laughs and then looks at me in the eye. “And I am not sure I am ready to give up working quite yet-I love my position in development. Right now I have this dream that I still may be able to be everything—be strong, be professional, and be a mother!”
And for some women, that is the real American Dream.