Girl Talk: My Best Friend Went To Iraq

Stephanie was the last person you would expect to join the Army. The absolute last person. You can ask anyone who knew her growing up and they would all say she seemed destined for the most hippie college you could think of.

We became friends through Girl Scouts and stayed best friends for years after. She was the dynamic, personable one and I was like a shy, muted version of her. Or I wished I was a muted version of her — being anything like Stephanie at all would have made me happy.

There were a lot of times during those years when I’d be lonely and I would start crying that I’d let this friendship fizzle out. I’d think about her getting sent to Afghanistan or Iraq and dying before we’d had a chance to reconnect and I’d feel like crap.

Stephanie is extremely witty — a quality I’ve never had — and able to charm boys and girls alike. She always took advanced math classes and AP classes years before anyone else; she took the P and the SATs while still in middle school and had studied German and Spanish at home since she was a kid. Her parents let her go to rock concerts on school nights and camp out at Lollapalooza; she loved — loved — music. She flaunted her body while I still covered it up and boys would pretend to be interested in me just to get to her. And she didn’t even realize it: Stephanie once told me, “You’re the pretty one and I’m the smart one.” (Um, thanks?) In 9th grade we started a ‘zine together called The Alias, which we sold for $1 to kids in the courtyard. We penned all our articles under aliases, of course, and printed issues off her parents’ computer until her dad took it in the divorce.

The divorce is when we found a new passion together: feminism. Being newly single, her mother pulled out a bunch of second wave books from the ’60s and ’70s and passed them along to Steph, who passed them along to me. I may not have completely understood Fear of Flying or The Woman’s Room at 15. During our junior year, Stephanie and I started our high school’s feminism club together. Everything about us was intertwined: we even each lost our virginity during the same weekend.

I probably created the first fissure in our friendship. Even though Steph had the test scores, I had the stronger work ethic and drive like a mule. My family was so crazy growing up that I figured out fairly early that I could take my senior year classes during freshman, sophomore and junior years and graduate at the end of 11th grade. So that’s what I did. I applied to college at 16 and moved into my freshman year dormitory at NYU while she was back home still in high school. Leaving her and my other close friends back home in suburban Connecticut wasn’t easy, but the choice between being trapped with my parents and brother or living in New York City was an easy one to make.

Then September 11th happened during my second week of college and it f**ked me up real good. None of my close friends from back home understood what it was like to have been convinced for several hours on 9/11 that I was going to die. I withdrew into myself and began feeling constant anxiety. I don’t blame Steph or any of my other friends, but I am sure that experience demarcated the line between “that’s still your life back home” and “my life here is different now.” It wasn’t that she seemed childish or immature, but in my mind, she was still worried about getting home by curfew and I was worried about being murdered by terrorists.

We’d long talked about her going to NYU, too, and us being roommates. But figuring out how to go to college led her to the Army. Her SAT scores were near perfect, but her grades were not. And furthermore, after her parents had split, paying for college became a problem. Our state school, UCONN, is in the boonies of Connecticut and she joked she would only go there if “UCONN-t get in anywhere else.” So she started thinking about the Army, much to everyone’s surprise. They’d pay for school, she’d get to travel, and she even said she liked the idea of serving her country. But when Steph said that the September 11th terrorist attacks were one of her reasons for joining the Reserve Offices Training Corps (ROTC), I could see the fissure between us was even bigger. I’d stood on 5th Avenue in Manhattan in my pajamas watching the Twin Towers burn and thinking to myself, “I am watching thousands of people die right now;” I’d been convinced I’d be dying that day, too. I firmly, firmly felt then and still feel now that I’d never wish that feeling on anyone. I’d been marching in anti-war protests — they were everywhere in NYC at that time — and I just couldn’t wrap my brain around Steph, of all people, wanting to participate in “the war on terrorism.”

But she did join. And she went to college in New Jersey and the Army paid for it. I never once ventured out there to visit her at school, but she came often into Manhattan to visit me. I’m ashamed to say I wasn’t a very good friend to her through all of college: I sent her some letters while she was training over the summers, but I’d buy care packages and never mail them. I fooled around with her ex-boyfriend when she was at boot camp one summer. She was always a better friend to me. When my freshman-year boyfriend dumped me, she paid for me to take an Amtrak down to Fayetteville, North Carolina, to see her. When I stopped eating and sleeping during my sophomore year, she and our other best friend intervened. She came in for every birthday, but I never went out for hers.

I think I really ruined things, though, when I didn’t go to her wedding. She had met someone else in the military and they married during her senior year of college. By that time, I had started my first job after college and was toiling away for little pay as a newspaper reporter. Steph called me on a Sunday and asked if I could be at a military base by Tuesday, or something, for the nuptials. I know marrying at age 21 is common elsewhere in the country, but for kids who grew up in suburban Connecticut, it’s just about unheard of. Even though I could intellectually understand why being married in the military gave them benefits they wouldn’t otherwise have — like being stationed together — I thought she was making a huge mistake. The shotgun wedding aspect really freaked me out; I didn’t want to take sick days or vacation days for this. So I told her “no” and she married him anyway, using someone else as a witness, I guess. Even though he was nothing but gracious to me when we eventually met, I felt like a jerk for missing their wedding.

Our lives completely diverged after that. She was bopping from Army base to Army base, eventually getting stationed on the DMZ in South Korea as a military police officer (an MP). I was in New York City, climbing up the ladder in journalism by fact-checking magazine articles into the wee hours of the morning and paying out the arse for a sixth-floor walk-up with roaches. A couple times during those years she came to visit NYC — her husband’s family lived here — and we’d catch up, but it was clear I was a low priority, scheduling-wise. I probably deserved that, but it hurt.

There were a lot of times during those years when I’d be lonely and I would start crying that I’d let this friendship fizzle out. I’d think about her getting sent to Afghanistan or Iraq and dying before we’d had a chance to reconnect and I’d feel like crap.

She did end up going to Iraq, of course — although we’ve never, ever had political discussions about anything U.S. policy-related. She told me The Frisky is blocked by the government computers (as is, YouTube and Nerve, but not or Planned Parenthood, strangely). She was working as an MP at an Iraqi prison, sending prisoners back to their families — and hell, how do I relate to that?! She was learning some Arabic. She called it “expat life without the alcohol.” That email placated me; she sounded safe and happy, even.

These days, she’s back in the States on another military base, studying for her LSATs. That much I’ve gleaned from Facebook, which is how I mostly communicate with her these days. We’ve exchanged a few emails in the past year or so and for every five or so I send, I will get one back. I suppose I deserve not being a priority anymore. She’s mentioned that my boyfriend and I should come visit her and her husband, although she doesn’t respond to my emails enough to actually solidify those plans. If we can ever figure that out, despite my crippling fear of flying, I’d go visit her in a heartbeat. She’s someone I’ve always loved and cared about, even if I was bad at keeping it up. I hope following her life on Facebook isn’t the way it will always be.

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