Minutes before Michelle Witmer went out on what was to be her last mission, she sent an e-mail to her twin sister, Charity. Michelle was not thinking about herself. Instead she was worried about Charity and another sister, Rachel, who were both serving with her in Iraq.
"I'm really worried about Rachel," Michelle wrote. "She's in a bad part of town. And I hope you'll be okay. I just want you to know I love you forever."
The day before, Michelle had seemed unconcerned about her safety. She told Rachel she was sure everything would be OK. "She says, 'I don't know what it is but I'm just, I'm OK, I'm at peace with everything,'" Rachel remembers. "She said those words, 'I'm at peace with everything. … I know that God has a plan for me. I know that he will take care of me. And I am OK."
‘Like She Knew’
The night of April 9 Michelle's squad was called in to help protect an Iraqi police station that was being overrun. Michelle, usually a driver, was ordered to man the vehicle's gun.
Rachel Witmer recalls seeing her sister shortly before they both left for their missions that day. "When we left that day we lined up in vehicle convoys, and she was going to one part of the city and I was going to another."
Rachel noticed her sister was not in the driver's seat, "so I kind of smiled at her. And she smiled back at me. And I remember — and to this day I will kick myself for the rest of my life — having this urge to just run over and hug her, tell her I love you, be safe. And I didn't."
There was something different in Michelle's face, Rachel says. "It was more stoic than usual and she just — I don't know if people know what's going to happen to them, but she just — she had this calm, stoic look on her face." Then Michelle waved goodbye, and it was the last time Rachel saw her.
Looking back, Charity also noticed something different about her twin sister. "She just was so — at peace with herself, and with life. And [in] retrospect it's just incredible to me. It was like she knew."
Michelle Witmer and her unit headed into an enemy ambush, where she was killed.
Charity was crushed when a military chaplain gave her the news, sobbing and questioning why it happened to her twin sister.
"He said to me, 'Charity, I feel like God laid it upon my heart to tell you this: because maybe she was the only one ready to go.'"
Rachel and Charity came home to a nation that was riveted by their family's loss — and the decision facing the two surviving sisters: should they stay in the United States after the family lost one daughter, or return to fight with their comrades?
In the end, the U.S. military suggested the young women complete their military obligations outside of Iraq and the sisters agreed to stay stateside.
Despite the tragedy her family has been through, Charity does not believe there should be any restriction on the number of siblings from a single family who are sent to Iraq.
"We're adults. You don't join the military unless you're 18. And if you, you know, are given the responsibility to vote and be considered an adult in this world, you have to make your own decisions," she said.
Older sister Rachel visits Michelle's grave from time to time. "It's hard," Rachel says. "It always overwhelms me because it's always full of flowers. And ones my family didn't put there."
The sisters' suffering is not just limited to thoughts of their sister. When they hear on the news that another soldier has been killed, it hits home. "It's like getting punched," says Rachel.
"It's just a two-second news blip," says Charity. "And then me and Rachel hear it and, like, we just want to cry because we know the pain. That's somebody you know. And somebody you love and care [about]. And you just lost them."