When My Sister Went to War I Got Her Name Tattooed on My Body

When my sister left for her second tour of duty in Afghanistan, I got her name tattooed on my body.
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Publish date:
July 24, 2016
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family, sisters, war, veterans

My sister Sally's arrival predates the formation of my first memories. was born 18 months after me. I was 18 months old when she was born, and I can't remember life without her. She was always looking up at me; her eyes were the darkest, sweetest brown.

Over the first decade and a half of our shared life, we played with the same nappy toys, fought over whose turn it was to use the telephone, and gradually sampled illicit substances together. We were so alike that people who didn't know us thought we were twins. After meeting her, one of my friends told me, "Finally, you make sense. She completes you."

I took it for granted that Sally would be around forever, just a text message away or closer.

Then, after September 11th, 2001, she enlisted in the United States Navy.

She aced the ASVAB and muscled through boot camp, then signed on to run video and photography for the public affairs team on USS Ronald Reagan. It was surreal to me. The ship's maiden voyage was three months long, from Norfolk to San Diego, around the tip of South America and all over the Pacific. Sally sent photos of what she saw out at sea: helicopters, fighter planes, incredible sunsets, polluted cities jammed with people.

I missed her intensely. I felt like I'd lost a limb. I was incomplete without her. I didn't make sense anymore.

When she returned stateside, she attended Syracuse University for a couple months of Navy-sponsored courses in communications. She dated a tattoo artist. She smoked cigarettes, sitting on the roof while we talked on the phone. She told me she was thinking of going to the Middle East for a tour of duty, but I didn't take it seriously. Why should I? The sister I knew wasn't like that. She had a Greenpeace sticker on her car for fuck's sake. She danced to rockabilly bands and wore red lipstick and nothing, literally nothing about her said, I belong in a combat zone.

But it didn't matter. The Navy sent my sister to Afghanistan.

She volunteered to go; she was a reporter. She didn't want to sit stateside, writing bullshit stories about the Color Guard and nuclear bases. She ran a news bureau in Kabul and slept with her M-16 next to her in her cot. My beautiful baby sister lived in a tent with a bunch of raunchy dudes for the six-month deployment. She wrote to me in April and told me that Arab Spring had started. She told me about sneaking booze with Special Forces guys, finding the downtown bars in a dry country. She told me when she lost friends to IEDs, enemy fire, and end-of-duty discharge. My parents hung a little banner with a blue star in the window. I wasn't the type to pray, but I checked my email every day. Refresh, refresh, refresh, always waiting to hear from her.

It was harder for her. She wore a bulletproof vest. At night, Afghan mortars popped over the base's walls. She heard nighttime fire like cheap fireworks. Our parents shipped her cases of her favorite, sugar-free Red Bull. She missed sex. The internet was too slow for Skype, bleeping our conversation every two minutes so that the video of her face froze, disrupted by pixels, on my screen. I zoomed in close enough to count her eyelashes and repeated the mantra of all military families: I miss you. I miss you. I miss you.

She came home different. I know everyone says that, but she really was changed. Her naturally blonde hair was dyed a dull red, and she was ropy and tan from PT and relays in the sun. She drank a lot. She took zero shit from anyone, so quick to stick her finger in someone's chest and tell them to shut the fuck up. I'd never seen that side of her before — she was, suddenly, a soldier. And yet, inside her shell, I could tell that she was as soft as ever, downy almost, and probably really fucking tired of having to defend herself 24/7.

After that first tour, I figured that she'd return to San Diego, get married, and cash in her GI Bill for a few more years of education. But maybe that's just what I wanted for her. She deserved some normal in her life — some time to lose the hard edges that the military put on her.

But it wasn't long until I got the notification. She had volunteered again, going to Bagram this time, for another six months. She'd just been dumped; it was hard to adjust to lazy bureaucratic life after living at 100 miles an hour in a combat zone. Her tone was reassuring and optimistic. It was a good opportunity. She joked that, this time, she wasn't coming home without some shrapnel in her ass. My skin tightened as though I'd been dunked in cold water. Who was she?

During the next few weeks, I couldn't sleep. I watched the news, staring at the footage of the war. I tried to imagine my sister in that arid, unforgiving place. I couldn't believe she was going back for more.

I made the appointment at Atlas Tattoo the day after I dreamed about my sister's funeral.

"What do you have in mind?" the bearded artist asked me.

I pointed to a spot on my back. "A pinup sailor girl," I said. "Retro style. With Sally underneath."

I didn't say: Just in case she doesn't come back this time.

It took a little over an hour. Jerry had a light touch and was a good talker. He asked about my sister as he inked her name into my skin. We talked about the war and on that sunny afternoon in Portland, it felt like a million miles away. I slept like a baby that night, and when I woke up I'd wrapped my arms around myself. My left hand rested over the new tattoo, holding my sister safely against my ribs.

I sent her a photo of it, smiling at the camera. I'm not sure why I wanted her to know that I'd done it — but her response was sweet, and it reconnected me for a minute with the way we used to be. Call it superstition, call it voodoo, but once I got that tattoo, my anxiety started to fade. I'd prepared myself, in my small way, for a loss I wouldn't be able to cope with. I'd made her part of me. No matter what happened, we were finally inseparable.

She came home on the Fourth of July, 2013. We saw each other at our grandparents' house. She'd grown into her toughness, jaw set. There was no softness. She got what she wanted: her boots on the ground. No shrapnel, but plenty of dirt.

She had a lot to be proud of. She was so fucking strong.

"Let me get a look at that tattoo," she said. We went into the bathroom and I pulled up my shirt, turning my back so she could see it.

She didn't say anything for a minute. I looked over my shoulder. Her eyes were glossy with tears.

"Looks just like you," I joked to break the silence.

"Oh yeah," she said. "Sailor Sally, that's me."

"Never been prouder," I said. I lowered my shirt. When I hugged her, I felt her coming home, finally, for good, to stay.