After Michelle Witmer was killed in combat in Iraq on April 9, her sisters, Charity, 20, and Rachel, 24--also members of the Wisconsin National Guard--agonized over whether to return to the war zone or ask for reassignment to noncombat positions (allowed by the military when a family member is killed). Charity Witmer spoke with NEWSWEEK's Hilary Shenfeld last week.
Why even consider going back?
That's my family back there. We'd been through everything with them: explosions, car bombs. You just get so close. How can you let those people down?
Yet you decided not to return.
We didn't want our units to be in danger. We're grieving for our sister. There are days when I just have a complete meltdown and I can't even function. The lives of other people are at stake. Especially as a medic, I have to be 100 percent there all the time. I had to think what was best for everybody. And of course I want to be with my family while they're grieving. It was the hardest decision I've ever made in my life.
Did you decide together or each on your own?
Together. We had to talk about it as sisters and soldiers.
Were you all particularly patriotic?
We all wanted to be part of something bigger. We wanted to make our mark, and joining the Army gave us a window into that. Maybe it was a difference in only a few people's lives, but we were able to do that.
Michelle was studying broadcast journalism at the University of Wisconsin in Madison until her unit was activated. How did she feel about the war?
The day that she got her active- duty orders and she went to withdraw from school, there was a huge antiwar protest. She took her orders and went up to a news reporter and she said, "If you want another opinion about the war, ask me." What she was saying was, it's not that simple. She had a job to do and she wanted people to understand that.
How was morale among the troops while you were there?
Just like everything else, some days are better than others.
What about women in combat?
My sister worked just as hard as any man out there. Both my sisters and I did. No matter what people think, women are in combat and they're doing just as good a job as men, so that should speak for itself.
How will you and Rachel complete your service?
On Monday our superior officers are going to give us their recommendations. I'm assuming we'll stay stateside. Rachel will probably be doing her MP-type job; I'm a medic and I'll be doing something medical.
Can you talk about your sister's sacrifice?
I'm still not ready to let her go. But I know and take pride that she made a difference in people's lives.