My Sister’s a Soldier
A sibling reflects on seeing her older sister transform from high school rebel to Army lieutenant.
Thursday, October 4, 2012
The thud of platform shoes reverberates against the hardwood floor. It’s early, but it’s routine to wake up to my oldest sister doing her makeup.
She sprays cotton candy-scented perfume all over her, a scent I’ve always disliked. Her eyelids are touched lightly with green and gold glitter. It must be spirit day at Monterey High.
My mother spies on her as she’s doing her makeup. Mama shakes her head, but Christine continues.
Fast-forward two years. Christine stands at the doorstep visiting from her first deployment in Korea. She’s traded in her platform shoes for a pair of combat boots. She smells of generic soap. Her hair is short, with no sign of untamed black curls. Her face is free of makeup.
Christine Argueza is the oldest of six kids and has often been the cause of commotion in the household. She was the first in my freshly immigrated family to act out in a series of bold statements – dating, going to prom, sneaking out.
“I didn’t know if I was a Filipino teenager living in America, or just an American teenager,” she says. “It was an identity crisis.”
Before she was 18, she ran away with her boyfriend, living out of a car in Big Sur. Our mother stopped talking to her. Months later Christine joined the Army. A reconciliation with my mother came with her enlistment.
Though most parents would worry about their child signing with the military, my mother, Gloria Argueza, knew she’d be in good hands.
“I knew that she was going to have discipline in the Army,” she says. “She would be taken care of.”
My mom probably didn’t anticipate how much Christine would be taking care of others. It has been nine years since she joined and starting moving up military rungs, most recently earning the rank of first lieutenant, a rarity for an enlisted soldier and one that required her to earn a degree and apply to a special advancement program. In the summer of 2011, Christine was called to serve in Afghanistan as a preventive medicine officer. She left in February.
Her mission was two-fold: to prevent diseases that could be spread among her brigade (4,200 all told) and to help Afghan soldiers be self-reliant against health risks.
“So they can take care of their health without American troops,” she says.
President Barack Obama plans to pull out 30,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by late 2012. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta hopes to “transition” the U.S. troops to be in “training, advice and assist role” by mid – to late – 2013.
Her own transition from the Philippines helped her in rural Kandahar, where untreated well water is a common cause of hepatitis A and typhoid. As she educated Afghans on drinking water standards, she accessed compassion that’s hard to train. “I come from poverty,” she says. “I was able to put myself in their shoes because I’ve seen people scavenging for food in the Philippines. When I put myself in that position, I understood why they looked at us like they did.”
She also schooled Afghans in basic antibiotics, first aid and hygiene.
“We weren’t there to convince them,” she says. “We were there teach a better way.”
Small advances deputizing Afghan soldiers as health aides ultimately meant big satisfaction.
“It was the most memorable and rewarding part of the job,” she says. “It was awesome seeing them teach their people how to clean themselves, their water, how to take care of their babies.”
She had moments which were less appealing: Nerve-rattling travel through checkpoints potentially booby-trapped with improvised explosive devices where American soldiers had been killed just days before. “I remember being warned about these sort of things,” she says, “but now it was actually happening.”
Since the repurposing of troops in Afghanistan, the situation hasn’t been going so smoothly. Attacks on NATO units and riots have ticked up; corruption remains rife. Christine looks past these problems to keep herself engaged.
“My war is helping people,” she says. “Whatever people do, whatever their political intentions are, that’s their war. My war is to give people opportunities that I’ve had.”
Hearing her say that, I realize she has always had a protective nature – whether she was babysitting siblings, defending her opinions or carving out her identity. I’d love to have her home more, but I’m also grateful she’s looking after others who can’t do it for themselves. And that she no longer wears the cotton candy perfume.