Girl Talk: I’m A Military Sister

My parents had only two rules for my brothers and me when we were growing up:

1. Don’t become a Republican.
2. Don’t join the military.

So you can imagine everyone’s shock and confusion when my fiercely liberal brother Corwin announced that he had enlisted in the Marines.

To some family members it was a surprise, but I’d known about it for a few years. When we were living together in DC—I was interning at a magazine, he was working for the Obama campaign—he told me his plans one night. “I owe it to my country,” he said. This was at the height of the Iraq war, when Halliburton, Blackwater, Dick Cheney, and George W. Bush were the reigning powers. Soldiers and civilians were dying every single day. Cindy Sheehan was being ripped apart on Fox News for protesting a war that had taken the life of her son. And those pesky WMDs were still nowhere to be found.

I sat on our creaky stairs, unable to comprehend what he was saying. “What the hell kind of country is this?” I asked. “And why do you owe them anything?”

“I have to do this,” he said. “It’s the hardest job in the world, and I don’t want anyone to have to do it for me.”

“How about the Peace Corps instead?”

Years passed, and I tried to forget that night, hoping he would too. Then, last September, at age 24, he went to a recruiting office in east Portland, and he signed a contract.

In March he shipped out to boot camp, and my family became a military family. Those 13 weeks were brutal for all of us. Corwin and I used to talk every day, exchanging funny texts and calling each other for advice. Now there was only one frantically scrawled letter a week, filled with tales of violence and sadness. There were texts from my other brothers, wondering if Corwin would come back a different person. There were intense talks with my dad about the morality of war, and there were tearful phone calls from my mom, her voice taut with fear as she tried to get a grasp on a wildly uncertain future.

Everyone told me, “You have to stay strong for him,” so I tried. I wrote him happy letters to lift his spirits. Whenever the grief and anxiety welled up inside me I gulped it back down, ashamed. After all, my brother was the one suffering through boot camp, an experience designed explicitly to break the human spirit. What did I have to complain about? I had a comfy bed, a fridge full of fresh food, and no one was screaming in my ear. In truth, no one had to; my own thoughts were deafening:

Our country is waging wars against an undefined enemy.

Soldiers are still dying.

My sweet brother is learning how to kill people.

One rainy night I was driving home from work and I started crying so hard I had to pull off the highway, gasping for air. Sitting there on the shoulder with all the cars rushing past, I wondered where my brother was, how he was, who he was.

I felt utterly alone.

Corwin graduated from boot camp and shipped out to the east coast for his next phase of training. We got to talk more, things got a little better, but I was still confused, angry, and scared.

A couple weeks ago I heard about an anti-war march scheduled in downtown Portland. I’d been to similar events before — many with Corwin, actually — but I had never had a chance to protest the war as a military sister. I bought a poster board and some fat markers and sat on my living room floor the night before the march, trying to figure out the perfect message. I finally settled on: “My brother joined the Marines to serve his country. I protest this war to serve him.” I took a picture on my phone and texted it to Corwin. “I love it,” he said. “Thank you.”

The moment I walked into the park where the protest was gathering, people swarmed me and requested photos. They asked me to thank my brother for his service, and they thanked me for being there. I was approached by Marines of all different ages, smiling veterans who were now fighting for peace. Beautiful.
As we marched down the street someone came up beside me and squeezed my hand. It was a woman about my age. She looked me in the eye and said, “My brother’s a Marine too.”

I opened my mouth to respond but before I could speak she hugged me and whispered, “It’s really, really hard.”

“Yes,” I said, “It is.” And in that moment I let out a breath I felt like I’d been holding for more than a year.

Later that afternoon the local news announced that the march had drawn 4,000 protesters. I thought about all the amazing people I’d met that day. I thought about the cardboard peace signs. I thought back to that night I spent crying in my car. I thought about the power of human connection. But most of all I thought about my brother: my funny, loyal, brilliant brother who is so dedicated to fighting for his country.

He will finish training in a couple months, and I don’t know where he will go next, but whatever happens, I will always fight for him.