When I was young, my brother Patrick and I were always close. We would play Zelda together, or eat buttered tortillas and watch The Emperor's New Groove.
In 2005, all of that changed. He stopped hanging out at home, and he spent more time with his friends. One night, I was in my room, and my mom and dad were in the family room watching TV. Patrick walked in the door and said, "I'm joining the Army."
The next few weeks were filled with him signing papers, and Mom and Dad signing papers. A recruiter came to the house and interviewed Patrick in the living room. I chose to stay upstairs in my room. To me, "enlisting" meant the Army was taking away my beloved brother and then shipping him off to war. I cried myself to sleep that night. I hated Patrick for making that choice, and I hated myself for saying I hated him.
Patrick left for boot camp that summer. I said goodbye to him in the garage, failing at choking back tears. He kept telling Mom, Dad and me not to cry, assuring us that it was only boot camp, and he wouldn't get hurt. My fears weren't my only reason for crying: It was the fact that he wouldn't be home anymore. I wouldn't get a pillow in my face for a wake-up call. I knew I wouldn't be able to hang out with him for at least six months. All I could manage to say was, "Love you."
Those first few weeks he was gone, I had to express how angry and upset I was at him. I started to wear darker, more gothic apparel: baggy pants with buckles, black eyeliner and lots of zippers. How I dressed was a sign to the world that I was upset about my brother leaving home for war.
After boot camp, Patrick went to San Antonio for combat medical training. We made plans to visit him for Thanksgiving, because he wasn't able to come home. The moment Patrick saw me in combat boots, he freaked out and started calling me a "goth" and "emo." It felt like he was stereotyping me. That was the hello I got from him, and I was crushed. When we packed up the car and left, I cried the whole way home.
From San Antonio, he went to Fort Lewis near Tacoma, Wash. Then he was deployed to Iraq.
He called the night before he left to say goodbye; it was all I could think about while I was at school. After a few days, when he got Internet access at his base, he started e-mailing Mom stories of all his shenanigans: He bought an off-road toy truck and drove it all around the desert, and he practiced inserting an IV on a GI Joe action figure. But he was also a bodyguard and worked in a major clinic in Baghdad where he saved patients and kept people alive—he did whatever needed to be done.
Something clicked, and I realized that this wasn't about me: It was about Patrick doing what he wanted to do. He risked his life for this country, and that just made me so proud of him. I had always loved my brother, but for the first time, I saw him as devoted—someone who goes beyond what other people do. Instead of feeling miserable or depressed, I realized, I should feel proud and happy that he made that choice. My chains started to lose their meaning.
Patrick came home on Oct. 4, after serving in the Army for four years. The day he drove home from Fort Lewis, I couldn't wait to get home and see him. I knew I wouldn't get a formal hello, but more of a hug and a "hi." I knew he was exhausted from driving straight from Tacoma.
When I got home, I calmly opened the door and walked upstairs. I knew he wasn't leaving again, and that I could see him as often as I wanted. I walked up the stairs to his bedroom, and we greeted each other with a "'sup" and a hug. I went back downstairs, and he went to sleep. Since he's been home, I've noticed that he has become kinder.
I'm proud to say I'm a sister of a U.S. Army veteran.
Stephanie Fleming, 15, attends Tucson High Magnet School. She is a participant in the VOICES Community Stories Past and Present Inc. program. For more information, visit www.voicesinc.org.