RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The National Day of Listening invites stories from veterans this year. The unofficial holiday, started by StoryCorps in 2008, encourages people from across the country to take advantage of the days following Thanksgiving and to have a conversation with friends and family. This National Day of Listening, I talked with my cousin.
MCKENNA BARLOW: My name is McKenna Barlow and I went to Iraq from 2003 to 2004.
MARTIN: Now, I call her my cousin, but we're actually cousins by marriage. Our extended family is close though, so we saw each other at the occasional holiday or family reunion. When McKenna decided to join the Army, most everyone in the family was surprised, including me. She grew up in a wealthy suburb of San Francisco, where it just wasn't part of the culture. None of her friends served in the military. McKenna signed up for the Army National Guard when she was just 17 years old. When I spoke with McKenna a few days ago, I asked her how her parents reacted when she told them she was deploying.
BARLOW: I, you know, I had the feeling that they thought they could get me out of it somehow. Maybe like, wow, not our little girl.
MARTIN: So, what was going through your mind when you got there and those first few weeks when you were actually on the ground there? Was there ever a point where you thought to yourself how did I get here?
BARLOW: Yeah. When we were in Kuwait, I would say that that was - well, I know that was the scariest time because it was all unknown. Everything that could happen, like gas attacks or scuds or, you know, getting fired upon, that was all a possibility. It was a wild card.
MARTIN: How many other women were in your unit?
BARLOW: Five, five or six.
MARTIN: Out of how many people?
BARLOW: Sixty or so. I mean, we were few and far between. In my tent was eight other men and me.
BARLOW: We made do. I put up my poncho around my cot and I hung my poncho up as, like, a little makeshift curtain so that I'd have some privacy.
MARTIN: Oh, my. Was there ever a moment when your gender was a disadvantage or at the very least just an annoyance?
BARLOW: Um-hum. Going into town and meeting up with the Iraqis, they had no idea what to make of me. They wondered if I was married and, you know, how much lamb and gold, you know, could they trade for me. And when am I going to have children? I mean, they couldn't understand what my position over there was. It got to be a point where they actually took me off of missions because it was just a circus.
MARTIN: What was it like to come home?
BARLOW: It was wonderful.
MARTIN: Were there any questions that you just didn't want to be asked?
BARLOW: I didn't want people to ask me my opinion on whether we should've gone in or not. Because at the age of 21 when you're in a unit, it's your job and you don't have the luxury to say, well, I'm going to voice my opinion about this. I didn't want to look like I was pushing it aside or I was an irresponsible citizen for not having an opinion. So, that's definitely a question that I didn't feel like I needed to or wanted to answer.
MARTIN: McKenna is now married with a young son and another baby on the way. You guys just found out what you're having, right?
BARLOW: Yes. We're having a little girl.
MARTIN: You're having a little girl. Congratulations. Is this a career path you would encourage her to pursue?
BARLOW: Oh, my gosh. What an amazing question. My parents could never have imagined what making that decision has given me. It's made me able to cope when I have hardship. It's another dimension of my life that I lean on a lot. So, I would recommend it for a daughter, actually. I mean, not recommend necessarily but encourage or support if they wanted to do it.
MARTIN: McKenna, thank you so much for talking with us.
BARLOW: I'm glad that I got the chance.
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MARTIN: If you'd like to record a conversation with a loved one, you can go to NationalDayofListening.org - all one word - and share your story. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.