Reflections from this Veteran | Chapel Hill Photographer

Every Veteran’s Day, I receive the sweetest phone call.  It’s from my mother who rings to wish me a Happy Veterans’ Day.  My husband is also the second sweetest of these greetings.  He unfailingly recognizes my service as a veteran. I was still serving when he and I met and started dating, and I think wearing that uniform caught his eye.

Veterans Day was established to honor those who served in the US Armed Forces and it coincides with the Armistice Day which marks the anniversary of the end of World War 1. Major hostilities were formally ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 to recognize those who have served.

June of this year marked the 25th anniversary of me signing on the dotted line to join the US Army Reserves.  It was an interesting decision for a number of reasons:

  1. I was raised in a traditional Sicilian-American family, and it wasn’t typical of girls and women to sign up for the Armed Forces.
  2. Joining the military after high school was normally for the graduates who weren’t headed for a college track. I was already accepted to my first-choice college to pursue a passion of mine.

The beauty of who we choose to be lies in our ability to not be typical.  For example, although there were some family members who did not agree with my decision, my immediate family was supportive, especially my mother.

Although she was not born here in the US, she has always been patriotic and loyal to the soldiers who train to defend our country.  She would often say to me, “There is great integrity in each person who works for the greater good of the whole country.”

I also grew up hearing my dad’s stories about being a boy from New Hampshire who flew cross country to SeaTac for the first time when he got stationed at Fort Lewis in Washington state.   (It brought a little bit of my own history alive the first time I flew into SeaTac.)

My best friend from high school was also in my corner.  When I called her to tell her about the decision I had made, she laughed and said, “Of course you did!”  What can I say, she got me.  Or she loved me enough to let me be who I was.

The other interesting tidbit was that I had already been accepted to my first choice college to study early childhood education.  I can assure you there were not many first grade teachers in my battalion for basic training (boot camp) or the advanced individual training (AIT) we do.

So the question invariably comes up: “Why did you join?”

And now…25 years later from the summer after high school, I know the answer, and I’ve known the answer all along.  I was called.  I felt compelled to do this.

I have learned to listen to that small voice that whispers to me, that instinct that speaks to my curiosity of all things.  I am a calculated risk person, and I knew when I sat in that recruiting office that I was looking for something.  I remember sitting there thinking, “How will you learn to fill up this great big world with a part of you?  Who will you be?  How will you contribute?  Most of all, what will you do to define and take care of you?”

In all fairness, I went to each of the armed forces offices and talked with all the recruiters: Army, Marines, Navy, and Air Force.  One was busy with new recruits.  One was out of the office that day. One told me they did not train their ‘girl’ soldiers offensively, just defensively.  (Yep, he used that phrase: “girl” soldier.)  But the Army…the Army made it clear that a solider was a soldier was a soldier, and they matched you up to your line of work based on your strengths, your skill set, and your interests.

By the time 9/11 had occurred, I had served 6 years as an active Army Reservist and 2 years as an inactive (but always ready) Reservist, and I was granted an Honorable Discharge upon closing out my time with the 309th Combat Support Hospital out of Boston, MA.

When 9/11 happened, I wondered about rejoining, but I also knew my life was vastly different with other people counting on me.  I knew that I could support our military in other ways, but this time of turbulence in our country also made me introspective about my own decision to join.  I served in peacetime, and we trained to support peacekeeping missions and always with the threat of war.

Here is what I know today, 25 years later:

Joining the Army as a 17-yeard-old high school graduate with a college acceptance on the horizon was not an easy decision, but easily one of the best I have ever made.  It forced me to dig deep and before it was de rigeur to define our why, I had defined it sitting in a plastic chair in the Army recruiting office.  It was also humbling because I had to go home to tell my mother what I was doing. I was considered a minor and needed a parent signature on the consent form.

I am forever grateful that this decision to trust my instinct was one that I chose to listen to.  I am also grateful to be in the company of brilliant men and women who join the ranks of our military because they believe in something bigger than themselves.  I am beyond grateful to the people who support our military at home and abroad.

I am reminded that we work today to build our tomorrows.  The small voice that whispers to you is always right, as it has your best interest at heart. We need to be brave enough to listen to it, to follow it, to trust it…even when the whole world wants to question our decision.

During basic training I remembered the words that Stephen Crane wrote in the book The Red Badge of Courage about everyone being afraid, but “courage is the fear that we do not show.”

Fear does not define us.

We simply march forward.  We show up.  I learned that the game of boot camp was a mental one.  Show up for yourself.  Your focus and your discipline will fall in line from there.  Oh, and muscle failure?  That’s a real thing.  I need not experience that a second time.


Barbara Bell Photography is a veteran of the US Army Reserves