Giselle Sterling was a Marine. So was her dad, Nelson Sterling.
She served in Afghanistan. He was on a float during the Vietnam War.
She’s 31 now, and lives in Boston, working for the city‚’s veterans’ services office. Nelson’s just a few hours away, in Sandown, N.H.
The two are just now beginning to compare their experiences of war.
At her dad’s house in New Hampshire, Giselle pulls his Marines yearbook off the shelf. 1970. She searches for Platoon 337.
“Are you in this?” He’s somewhere in there.
“There you go. Oh my god. It’s hilarious. With an M-16 on the rifle range.”
“I remember finding some of your ribbons and just being at awe at them. But never having the guts to ask you about it,” Giselle says. “Like: ‘Oh, my dad’s a Marine?’ It was kind of magic to me.”
Despite his own service, Nelson hadn’t expected that his daughter would follow in his footsteps.
“I just brought a recruiter home and was just like, ‘This is what I want to do. What do you think, mom and dad?’” Giselle says now.
The moment took him by surprise. “She had already made up her mind. We didn’t discuss it.
“Everything was done, right there and then.”
“She was gone in a week or two.”
Giselle deployed to Afghanistan in 2002.
“My role was so far from the action, if you want to call it that, but it definitely played a direct role in the actual war,” she says.
Staff Sergeant Giselle Sterling was a radio operator — a communications expert — responsible for connecting the Marines in the air with the Marines on the ground.
“Nowadays, it’s all about air control. If guys in planes don’t know where to go, then they can’t drop bombs, or shoot wherever the need to shoot, or put in suppressing fire,” she says. “In a sense, as a communications operator, I was aiding in that way. …
“And I will never know who was hurt, harmed or maimed at my keeping a radio line open. But the human aspect never hit me while I was there.”
Giselle’s experience away from the front lines in Afghanistan, it turns out, wasn’t so very different from the way her father interpreted his time deep within the Vietnam War decades earlier.
“When you’re in a place like that, you’re not thinking in terms of what’s right or wrong or moral,” Nelson says. “You’re placed in a situation where survival has to come into play. That is what occupies your mind most of the time. …
“When I think of my having been in Vietnam at that time — the idea of Vietnam, what we were doing there, you don’t want to think about things. You don’t have the luxury of being sentimental or moralistic when you’re in a place like that.
“You have to become somewhat mechanical.”
“You’re brought up to consider that killing is wrong,” Nelson says. “But now there’s an exception.”
“You, in a way, are the first victim, because of the way you are taught to think.
“That’s the way they rewire you,” Giselle says.
“So you definitely have changed,” Nelson says. “And I don’t think there’s ever a coming back to who you were.”
“Now the big question is…” Nelson begins…
“… What do we do afterwards,” his daughter finishes.
“I think after you get out is when you start thinking,” Nelson says.
“And that’s the hard part.”
Giselle Sterling is a source in the Public Insight Network. Public Insight analyst Alison Brody contributed to this story.