Like father, like daughter: Right and wrong across conflict, across generations

Samara Freemark
Reporter
Public Insight Network
Meg Martin
Associate editor
Public Insight Network

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.”

 

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Photo by M. Scott Brauer for the Public Insight Network

 

“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.”

 

Giselle Sterling and her father Nelson Sterling talk about their experience in the military at Nelson's home in Sandown, New Hampshire.  Nelson Sterling served in the US Marines during Vietnam and Giselle Sterling served in the Marines in Afghanistan.

Photo by M. Scott Brauer for the Public Insight Network

 

Nelson was 19 when he joined the Marines. Straight out of high school.”It was’69, and my parents were surprised. Especially my father,” he says. “He was very much opposed to me going into service at all. He disagreed with what was going on in Vietnam. And to him it was more, if you don’t believe in what’s going on, you shouldn’t serve.”But my perspective was: ‘I live in this country. I’ve been here since I was 10 years old, and this is my home — so I have to serve.’”It was during the Vietnam War, and Nelson — an immigrant from the Dominican Republic — was assigned to a ship. He was deployed across the Pacific: served in the Philippines, Vietnam, until 1973.
Despite his own service, Nelson didn't expect that his daughter would follow in his footsteps.

Photo by M. Scott Brauer for the Public Insight Network

 

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."

Photo by M. Scott Brauer for the Public Insight Network

 

“She was gone in a week or two.”

 

Photo by M. Scott Brauer for the Public Insight Network

Photo by M. Scott Brauer for the Public Insight Network

 

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.”

 

Photo by M. Scott Brauer for the Public Insight Network

Photo by M. Scott Brauer for the Public Insight Network

 

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.”

 

Photo by M. Scott Brauer for the Public Insight Network

Photo by M. Scott Brauer for the Public Insight Network

 

“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.

 

Photo by M. Scott Brauer for the Public Insight Network

Photo by M. Scott Brauer for the Public Insight Network

 

“So you definitely have changed,” Nelson says. “And I don’t think there’s ever a coming back to who you were.”

 

Photo by M. Scott Brauer for the Public Insight Network

Photo by M. Scott Brauer for the Public Insight Network

 

“Now the big question is…” Nelson begins…

 

Photo by M. Scott Brauer for the Public Insight Network

Photo by M. Scott Brauer for the Public Insight Network

 

“… What do we do afterwards,” his daughter finishes.

 

Photo by M. Scott Brauer for the Public Insight Network

Photo by M. Scott Brauer for the Public Insight Network

 

“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.

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Samara Freemark Reporter
Public Insight Network

Reporter/producer Samara Freemark joined the Public Insight Network after four years at Radio Diaries in New York City, where she spent her time helping ordinary people tell their extraordinary stories for NPR. In the process, she developed an unshakeable belief in the beauty and power of personal narrative.

Before Radio Diaries Samara worked as an environmental reporter, a posting that took her to sinking islands, Superfund sites, and literal snakepits – Burmese pythons, to be exact. She also churned out copy and tape in the newsroom of WUOM Ann Arbor. Before settling on a career in radio she tried out policy research, community organizing, and urban planning before deciding she preferred soundwaves to spreadsheets.

Meg Martin Associate editor
Public Insight Network
Meg Martin is PublicInsightNetwork.org's associate editor. She joined the PIN crew in St. Paul, Minn., after five years in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Roanoke, Va., where she led the online/multimedia team at the Roanoke Times newspaper. She spent two years before that in St. Petersburg, Fla., at The Poynter Institute - first as a summer writing fellow and later as a fellow and editor at Poynter Online - but she'll always be a Pittsburgher at heart.