Excerpt: 'Sisters in Arms' by John Witmer

It was the fall of 2000. Rachel was two years out of high school. She had worked at various jobs but hadn't quite settled on a direction in life. She was well-read and intelligent, but the last few years of high school had been a grind, and she wasn't ready to jump back into the books. But when she was ready to go to college, she wanted to do it on her own. If she asked for Mom and Dad to help with the expenses, there would be strings attached. She was supporting herself and she wanted it to stay that way. Joining the Guard seemed to be the answer: a bonus, job training, and money for school. She signed on the dotted line as sixteen-year old Charity looked on with envy.

In January 2001, we stood with Rachel as she checked in to a hotel across the street from Milwaukee's MEPS – military speak for "Military Entrance Processing Station." MEPS would be the first of hundreds of new acronyms Rachel would learn over the next four months. In the morning, she would receive a wake-up call at 4:00 a.m. and the induction process would begin; the day would be full of medical tests and examinations. Then, late the next day, she would board a bus to Milwaukee's Billy Mitchell Field. A plane would take her to St Louis and another bus ride would land her at her destination: Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, one of the toughest basic training facilities in the country.

She had to be in her room and accounted for by 10:00 p.m. We lingered in the hotel lobby until the last minute, the whole clan: Mom (Lori), Dad, Tim, Michelle, Charity, and Mark, making small talk. "We'll be there for graduation—write us and tell us when it is just as soon as you find out," Lori reminded her again. We had always been a close-knit family, and saying goodbye, even for four months, was difficult.

Two days later, Rachel was moving through a line at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, collecting her gear as the drill sergeants screamed instructions to the new recruits. Finding combat boots in a size four had not been easy, but the gear was collected in a duffel bag. She wrote us describing carrying her duffle bag full of her new gear: "We had to hold the duffle bag in front of us as we walked. It was almost as tall as I was and weighed nearly as much." From the beginning, it was clear that the drill sergeants meant to tear the recruits down so that they could then be reassembled into soldiers. Many in this group would not make it. "A lot of recruits have washed out," she wrote a few weeks later, "we're down to 280 from about 320. One of the guys attempted suicide last night."

I marveled at Rachel's tenacity as I read her boot camp letters. It wasn't just that she endured the long days or the relentless physical training—she made it through the mind games. "For now, we're only allowed to eat with a spoon. When we get into the next phase, the drill sergeants may let us have a fork." Through it all, she remained positive, and when we saw her again, at her graduation, there was no doubt that my first-born daughter had become a soldier.

Excerpted from "Sisters in Arms: A Father Remembers," available now from Library Lane Publishing (www.librarylanepublishing.com). Copyright © 2010.

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