Each year on November 11th, the United States of America celebrates Veterans Day. This federal holiday is observed to honor military veterans, and coincides with holidays like Armistice Day (in France) and Remembrance Day (in the United Kingdom) which are celebrated to mark the anniversary of the end of World War I.
Here at Carnegie Mellon University, we are lucky to have many distinguished veterans who have joined our community as students, staff and faculty.
Sarah Warner, a Ph.D. candidate in Biological Sciences, served in the Navy as a Cryptological Technician, Interpretive (CT1) First Class and as an Arabic Linguist from 2005-2011. She was deployed to Iraq in 2009.
Sarah recently shared about her time in the military. Let’s learn more about her!
Why did you join the military?
My practical reason for joining the military was because I wanted to become a translator and work for the U.S. government or a governing body, such as the U.N. Out of the different paths available to such a career, the most reliable, efficient, and cost-effective path was through the military as a linguist. I selected the Navy for several reasons, one of which is that it was the only branch that guaranteed me the job (rate) of my choice when I signed the contract.
Another, more idealistic factor was that in my home life and in my state, civic duty is emphasized. My parents led by example and taught my siblings and me to give back to our community, and in the state public high school and university systems I attended, volunteerism was required for graduation. Teachers discussed AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, military service, and civil service all as honorable and necessary aspects of community and personal development, and as supplements to a college education.
Military service seemed not only reasonable and rational, but a good and loving option that would assist me on my career path while helping society and facilitating personal growth.
Tell us more about your experience serving in the Navy.
There are so many interesting stories from serving in the military! The military experience allows people to grow and expand in ways they never dreamed possible. One of the pieces of advice I was given shortly before I joined was, “you will get what you put into this,” and I firmly believe that holds true for all of life’s adventures, especially those which come with a high level of personal growth and accountability. If you have your eyes and mind open, you will find the military experience transformative beyond scope or reckoning.
What was it like to serve in Iraq?
It is safe to say that overall, I consider my time in Iraq as the most stressful period of my life. After all, we were at risk of being kidnapped and I could be killed the next time we were attacked. When you realize the extent of your vulnerability and are frequently under attack, those issues are not trivial.
Perhaps as a result of that, I cherished every moment of beauty and happiness that I could. I marveled at my first sandstorm, and how the whole world had a reddish hue. I enjoyed the (relatively) tolerable heat of the night, and the beauty of the moon over the palm trees bordering the Shatt al-Arab.
I tended to hang out with the Iraqi staff and the native interpreters. We would often eat, drink tea and chat together. In particular, I was close with the cook. We would talk about family, our interests, and life in general. He enjoyed practicing his English, and I my Arabic.
One day, I came into the kitchen for breakfast and to see how he was. He was more excited than usual and told me that he had something special for me. He told his wife about our conversations, and she was so happy he had a friend among the Americans that she packed him double the breakfast servings for the week. Twice the delicious, homemade flatbread and twice the eggs.
Soon, we began exchanging small gifts; lotions, stuffed animals, and the like. Shortly before I left that base, the cook gave me a photograph of his daughters. Even though our contact ended when I left, their impact did not. The photograph is framed and in my dining room, next to my family pictures.
“It reminds me of the wonderful people we can meet in any circumstance throughout the world, and of beautiful relationships and memories that are waiting to happen if we just give them the chance.”
What is something that most people do not know about the military?
The military is a diverse community. Nowhere else have I routinely worked with people from so many backgrounds with so many diverse thoughts and opinions.
There was also a diversity in education among my enlisted community. I was the rare person who enlisted immediately after high school; most of my peers had undergraduate and even graduate degrees! I was the only person in my class section who did not have any college experience, yet I was the same rank and earned the same pay as people who had already earned multiple graduate degrees.
Because we had a wide variety of interests, our conversations were rarely dull. Discussions would range from a variety of non-charged topics to open conversations about controversial topics, including politics and religion.
“I have rarely had such vulnerable conversations with people since leaving the military, and never in such an open and non-judgmental setting. Serving in the military shifted my paradigm and opened my mind in ways I could never imagine.”
Why did you choose Carnegie Mellon for your civilian career?
Carnegie Mellon was the natural fit for my Ph.D. program because it is a dynamic, creative, top-tier institution that excels in its field while pushing boundaries and challenging assumptions. The staff and faculty here do not rest on their laurels, but ceaselessly strive forward towards excellence. Out of all of the institutions that I interviewed at, these qualities were most prominent here, and I knew that joining this community would further my scientific advancement and progress in an environment that best fit my character and goals.
As someone who has served, what does Veterans Day mean to you?
Veterans Day is a day of reflection, pride, love, happiness, and sorrow for me. I am sorry that there ever is war in the world, and for all the pain that war, and humanity, causes. However, I am proud of serving my country, of performing my civic duty and having been part of something greater than me.
“For six years of my life, I gave myself to my country. Living a life of service is the most loving and selfless thing a person can do, and it was an honor to do that.”
It is my hope that more people will give back to their communities and witness the multi-directional benefits from it. Whether it be the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, the military, volunteerism through a nongovernmental organization or just helping the needy in your community, please do something. Once you realize how important and beneficial it is, I believe you will never stop being passionate about it. Civic duty will never grow old.