At some point in the latter half of my second (and last deployment) to Iraq, I overheard someone ask my brigade’s retention team if they had gotten me to reenlist yet. “Oh, we’re not even bothering with Churchill anymore. She’s moving to New York City. She has plans,” one of the sergeants said. I chimed in to add that thanks to stop-loss (a policy used to maintain personnel stability), the Army was already getting an extra nine months from me.
I had been due to get out Feb. 9, 2009 – a friend with the same separation date and I had once sung “Tonight we’re gonna party like oh-two-oh-nine-oh-nine” (he didn’t wind up getting out on that day, either). In early 2008 friends in other parts of the Middle East said there were rumors my brigade was going to be heading over. I think I made it to at least one separation briefing before we got the official word. We got to Iraq in June, and got home in August 2009. I finally got out that November.
My plans worked out. This Veterans Day will be my 11th here. It will be the ninth time I’ll march in the parade; the fifth time I’ll attend the mayor’s Veterans Day breakfast (praying there’s more coffee than last year, though if not I can get a free one at Starbucks); and if all goes well, the first time I’ll attend the Army Week Association Veterans Day Gala. It is already the first year that my brain has finally remembered that there’s not an apostrophe in the holiday’s name.
Joining the Army was never the plan. I like sleeping in, wearing bright colors, and dancing or walking for exercise. When I came home from a job fair in 2003 and said I had talked to a recruiter, my family thought I had lost my mind. I had moved back to northwestern Pennsylvania after 10 months as the lifestyles editor at a paper in West Virginia. There wasn’t any room for advancement, and there simply weren’t enough single 20-somethings for me to hang out with. Graduate school in New York seemed like it might be a good stepping stone.
Getting to the City
I don’t know exactly when or why getting to New York City became my goal. Maybe it had something to do with two of my favorite movies as a child, the 1982 “Annie” and then “Ghostbusters.” The stories my grandma told about coming here for fashion shows when she was the women’s apparel buyer for a Pittsburgh department store were definitely an influence. By the time I was 10, most of the fiction stories I wrote were set here.
The Army recruiter said I could get the money for school. And that the Army was providing laser eye surgery. And I might be stationed somewhere tropical. I was assigned to Fort Hood, a beige wasteland in the middle of Texas, for the parts of my enlistment that I wasn’t in Iraq. There were soldiers from tropical places there, which I told myself was close enough. I did get laser eye surgery.
I finally moved here in August 2011 to get a master’s from NYU, using the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill, which had been signed into law during my second deployment. From the first night it was clear I was supposed to be here. I was going to live with an Army buddy, Theresa, for my first few months, and my mom and I found a free, legal spot in front of her building the night I arrived.
Theresa’s former roommate sold me her fairly new bed for a ridiculously low price; it has since moved to Queens and then the Bronx with me. The bar where the West Virginia University alumni group met to watch football was just a few blocks away. The first time I saw a 99 cent Fresh Pizza I took it as a sign that God wanted me to be here and be well fed.
NYU’s Veteran Group
Even though my service had made the move possible, for the first year or so, I didn’t go out of my way to find other veterans. Between the fact that I joined after getting my bachelor’s and working for a bit, and that I had a job in public affairs that afforded me a lot more independence than most junior enlisted soldiers enjoy, I always had at least a toe, if not a whole foot, in the civilian world. When I wrote news releases about my brigade, they were in Associated Press style, instead of military jargon. I didn’t really expect to have much in common with other veterans even if I found them.
After graduating, though, as my classmates scattered, I started accepting event invitations from groups like Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and then NYU’s veteran group got more active. At some point I did a couple of multi-veteran service organization 5ks, and got on the email lists and in the Facebook groups of The Mission Continues, and Team Red, White and Blue. For a while I was a chapter project leader for the Travis Manion Foundation. I started going to Arts in the Armed Forces readings and volunteered for the NYC Veterans Alliance’s 2020 mutual aid program.
Turns out I do fit in to the military community! And as the world reopened, those were some of the people I was most excited to see in person. Every event now feels like the gang’s back together. I might have eventually made it to New York without the Army, but I don’t think I’d have as much fun.
After graduating ... I started accepting event invitations from groups like Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and then NYU’s veteran group got more active.”