I remember my last shift as cashier at a local 7-11 store. I was 19, no older than my own children, when I got into my car and pulled out of the parking lot. It wasn’t my only job.
I was a full-time college student and running pizzas for Domino’s. It was just after 7 a.m. and I had just enough time for a quick nap in my beat up old Honda before the first class of the day.
“Is this all there is?” I remember saying out loud to nobody.
When I wasn’t ringing up lottery tickets on the graveyard shift, speeding through residential neighborhoods to deliver food to waiting customers or sitting in the back of a crowded lecture hall, I was snatching bits of sleep in various parking lots. Every so often, I stopped by my older sister’s house to wash my clothes and shower.
Hours later, I found myself driving aimless around north St. Louis. My life, I knew, was falling a part. There was a tattered journal in the backseat. Somewhere in those pages lay the dream of becoming a journalist. I wanted to be a local news anchor. I was too afraid to tell anyone; too afraid they would laugh.
Tired, I pulled into a shopping center, reclined the seat and opened the notebook. I hadn’t written a word in months. As I flipped through the pages, someone knocked on my window.
“What are you doing out here, young lady?” he said, smiling.
“You look hungry.”
I shrugged again.
He said his name was sergeant somebody. “Come on inside.”
We talked for hours. About my life, about his. He was a sergeant in the Marine Corps, he explained, and like me he’d had a hard time finding his way. “I cannot promise you’ll get to be a reporter,” he said. “There are very few job openings and it’s very competitive.”
It was likely, he explained, that I would be assigned to be an admin. “But at least you won’t be sleeping in your car.”
That was enough for me.
A few days later, after more marathon talks and taking the ASVAB test, I signed the enlistment forms and joined. It was Mother’s Day 1987. When I called my mother to say I was shipping out, she screamed “Hallelujah”! For years, she’d dealt equal doses of support and tough love. Maybe, she said, the Marines can help you figure it out.For the next 12 weeks, along with 40 other young women, I fought my way through training. I spent my 20th birthday in boot camp. When I finally received my work orders, I was confused. I had no idea what a Public Affairs Broadcaster was. When my drill instructor explained, my knees buckled under me. I was going to be a journalist. After graduation, I proudly slipped on my dress blues. My next stop was the Defense Information School in Indiana, where I would be trained as both a Public Affairs Officer and a broadcast journalist.
That was 24 years ago and, in so many ways, I’ve been doing that job every day since. I have been a reporter for a big city daily, a general assignment reporter and a contributing editor to a variety of publications. I’ve written opinion pieces for some of the most highly regarded magazines in the country. I have been the top communications executive with two Fortune 500 companies and represented some of the world’s best-known and highly respected brands. I’ve rescued CEOs from their own foibles and counseled elected officials from the school board to the White House. I have worked with two global news networks, including NBC News where I still work today. For that, and so much more, I am grateful.
But mostly, I am grateful to have made it home. Although women are not allowed to serve on the front line, the realities of war tell a different story. Whether it’s an embassy bombing, a checkpoint ambush or an improvised explosive devise that tears its way through a caravan, women are not immune.
Women serve in all four armed forces, ranking from private to general. Like our brethren, we are trained to fight. And fight we do. In so many ways, we are Sisters in Service.
When I was growing up, Memorial Day meant riverfront parades, backyard barbeques, music and family. For me, it’s more than a much-needed reprieve from work. It’s a day to remember the many sisters (and brothers) who never made it home to their families, women who answered the call to protect American interests — foreign and domestic. They gave their very lives for our way of life. For all of my misgivings about war, I am proud of my service and proud of the women I served with.
Then too, I owe a debt of thanks to Sergeant Whatever-His-Name-Was. Serving was an opportunity for career, a world-class education — and to serve with the incredible men and women of our Armed Forces. I am not certain what would have come of me had he not knocked on my window. But I do know this: “For those who have served, freedom has a taste — and a price — that the protected will never know.”