The Woman Soldier’s Daughter

Growing up, I was under no impression at all that my upbringing was even the slightest bit unique. I went to school, I looked after my brothers, I disliked lima beans. Nothing unusual to my way of thinking. Breakfast was typically cereal, and mom was normally either out the door as we were or already at work by the time I was dressed. Her shoes didn’t click delicately against the hardwood, but thudded seriously as she collected her things in the mornings. There was power to her steps. Combat boots offer a certain amount of gravitas, I suppose.

I thought very little about the fact that mom worked outside of the house, and even less about her position as an Army officer. Didn’t everyone’s parents dress in fatigues every day? Wasn’t that the typical uniform I saw on her co-workers? Plenty of other grown-ups wore forest green BDUs just like she did. I honestly don’t remember seeing a business suit in an office environment until I was in high school. Plenty of dress blues, but nothing one could easily pick up at a department store.

We didn’t have Target, we had the PX. We didn’t have Giant, we had the commissary. Didn’t everyone?

It all seemed awfully normal to me.

Though I do remember having to make a lot of corrections.

“Oh, what rank is your dad?”

“I don’t remember, but my mom is a captain.”

“What service is your dad in?”

“Both my parents are Army.”

Dad had retired from military service when I was far too small to remember ever seeing him in uniform. I knew he had served and I knew he worked with clients overseas in a business he started with an old friend, but for many years, that was the extent of my knowledge of my dad’s career. I mostly remembered him home with us. Picking me up from rehearsals, taking us to doctors’ appointments, tapping away on the computer in his home office when we were sick in bed. It didn’t occur to me that those were things most other kids’ moms would do. Dad was very good at keeping us occupied in his own ways, and that suited his kids just fine.

With Dad’s instructions that I be home before dinner, I was often free to ride my bike down the block or to the library and sometimes to the edge of base where the beach was empty in the calm afternoon hours between the end of my school day and the end of the working day. I’m not sure I would classify my childhood as some Americana ideal, but I greatly enjoyed those hours to myself with little worry of getting lost. It was an Army base, after all. What could happen? Every house I rode by had a rank and name beside the front door. If ever I got turned around, all I had to do was knock on one and I was sure to get pointed in the right direction. We didn’t have Target, we had the PX. We didn’t have Giant, we had the commissary. Didn’t everyone? I would ride past all these staples of my transient hometowns, nearly always making it home well before Mom returned from work in the soft haze of late afternoon.

At last! A move I chose for myself! A place I got to pick!

Mom came home a handful of those evenings to tell us “I think we might be moving again soon,” and within a few months, our things were in boxes and on their way to a new state. But wherever we landed still had ranks and names beside front doors and a PX and a commissary and I was still free to ride my bike where I liked.

Truth be told, I didn’t have any real scope on what life outside of a military base was like or how it could be different from the kind of life I was used to. I’d never known anything else, so what was my basis for comparison?

Children don’t typically examine these things too closely. I didn’t, at least, until I was much older.

I entered my very first public school in tenth grade, and while it didn’t seem all that different from the military base schools I’d attended previously, it was enormous and it was loud and it was very clear that it operated under an entirely different set of social rules. Suddenly, it was no longer cool to be in student government and JROTC wasn’t a thing. I adapted easily enough. Northern Virginia, after all, is essentially southern Washington D.C. Lots of lawyers and government employees, and more than a few fellow officers’ kids who could show me the ropes of life off base.

But my biggest culture shock came three years later when I left for college.

At last! A move I chose for myself! A place I got to pick! It had nothing to do with orders from the Army and I would throw myself into the arts, a career move that, to my mind, could not have been further from the rigor and stringency of military life.


If I can handle northern Kentucky, I can figure out what the heck “yinz” is supposed to mean.

Let’s be clear. I’ve lived in Oklahoma, Texas, New York, Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia again, and I did a stint in California on my own.

And I can still say beyond a shadow of a doubt that Pennsylvania befuddled me the most.

Whoopie pies? Okay, sure. It’s weird and it’s too rich, but I can deal.

The accents? If I can handle northern Kentucky, I can figure out what the heck “yinz” is supposed to mean.

But as I sat in my Anthro 101 course on the first day, I heard my professor ask how many students grew up with their moms at home.

And in a classroom of maybe eighty people, mine was one of three hands that stayed down.


In the twenty-first century United States, college students were staring at me like I was from another planet because my mother left for work in the mornings?

I could have sunk into the floor and died on the spot.

Naturally, this led to my being singled out by the professor.

Of course it did.

“What does your mother do?” he asked, not unkindly. He taught anthropology, after all. His question was for research purposes.

“She’s a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army,” I answered. “She’s overseas at the moment.”

“For real?” I heard a boy behind me say.

And for God’s sake, what was so odd?

“Oh, wow,” my professor replied. “Where overseas?”


My knee-jerk reaction was “hell yes, she’s in the Army – get over it” and “quit with your sexist nonsense – why shouldn’t a woman do both?”

While I’m sure my memory is over-exaggerating the collective gasp my classmates took, I remember very clearly all the times this exact subject was brought up again over the course of the semester…

“Hold up, can she shoot?”

“My parents met at an artillery school, so yeah, I think she can shoot.”

“Wait, are you sure she’s an officer?”

“I was at her promotion ceremonies, so… yeah, I’m pretty sure.”

I truly didn’t get it. I was in an alternate universe where my mother in uniform was not only strange, but honestly unthinkable. Was this really such a foreign concept to people? A woman in the Army? A woman who followed her career across the country? Was that truly some kind of shock? I’d always thought of my life as acceptably normal, but suddenly my family and myself were seen as some kind of absurdity.

How and when had that happened? And more importantly… why?

My knee-jerk reaction was “hell yes, she’s in the Army – get over it” and “quit with your sexist nonsense – why shouldn’t a woman do both?”

And yet more than once, I caught myself wondering how life might have been different. Off base. Away from camouflage and closer to what other kids my age might understand.

And to other people’s standards, more… “normal”.

She was home and she was safe and she was coming to see me.

Mom came home from her Iraq tour that winter and her first trip a week or so later was to come visit me at school. I got us tickets to see a friend’s show, I texted her directions of where to meet, and I waited on the steps of my cherished theater building.

I probably lit up half a pack of cigarettes in the twenty minutes before I saw her, I was so nervous. I had warned my more… colorful friends that she could be tough. That her standards were exacting and that once out of her good graces, one would struggle to find a place back into them again. I sure had, and I was far from the most rebellious teenager I knew.

But when she ran across campus to meet me and I saw her cream colored snow coat and her dark auburn hair coming towards me…

I forgot my hurt feelings about her leaving for war in the first place.

I forgot how much we argued and how much trouble I often found myself in with her. I forgot to be mad at her for scoffing at my love for a profession that would never earn me stability. I forgot how off balance I’d felt over the past five months having to explain her to others.

I just forgot.

She was home and she was safe and she was coming to see me.

My mom despises the smell of cigarettes more than almost anything else, and I know I must have reeked of them. She held me tight anyway.

We saw the show and we caught up. The next day, she took me shopping and we went out to dinner. She sat in on one of my rehearsals and met quite a few of my colorful friends, one of whom had a dad in the Air Force. God, you could tell it just lit my mother up inside to see I’d made a friend who understood the same life I’d lived. The glow of relief that I once mistook for “thank heavens my daughter has a normal friend” was actually “thank heavens for someone who maybe understands my daughter”.

Whether I knew it or not (I didn’t), her career was my first lesson in feminism.

Our relationship wasn’t magically fixed when she came home. We had more than our share of turbulence in the years that followed.

But I think her return was my first glimpse at understanding that my mother, the seemingly irascible disciplinarian of my youth, the steadfast doer and leader, the apparent oddity in green was, in fact, maybe just a little…


Just like everybody else’s mom.

She’s retired now. Over twenty-seven years in the Army and a degree from West Point. I still think sometimes that I’m not totally used to seeing her in civilian clothes or with brighter colored nail polish. I’m definitely not used to the lack of plaque with her name and rank next to her and Dad’s front door. To some degree, it still trips me up that I have to actually pay attention to house numbers in order to find out where somebody lives.

Being an Army kid isn’t always shiny. I used to really hate having to move my whole life from one base to another, and I can’t say I ever developed any kind of lasting affection for having to sit oh-so-very-still for another lengthy ceremony. But I do know all the words to every Armed Forces song. I can probably name most, if not all, of the currently active military bases in the country. I’d be awfully helpful in an Army-themed round of trivia.

My mom is still tough, but I don’t warn people away from it anymore. I’m tough, too. I have to believe the Army might have given me that because it gave me the kind of mother I have.

Whether I knew it or not (I didn’t), her career was my first lesson in feminism.

It wasn’t loud and it wasn’t obvious. It was the quiet but strong and decisive presence of a woman in a uniform standing in a row of men dressed the same.

And she made sure her daughter saw.

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4 thoughts on “The Woman Soldier’s Daughter

  1. Thank you, love. This is beautiful, and I am incredibly proud of the feminist and writer you have become. Keep sharing! – Mom

    Liked by 1 person

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