At the orientation for my master’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh, I discovered that there were three categories of students—and thus three personality types—in the security program: the Human Security majors who studied global safety and refugee issues, the Global Political Economy majors who studied financial crises, trade flows, and international investment, and the Security Intelligence majors who focused on either counterterrorism or counterproliferation, and would ideally be recruited into an intelligence agency or the government by the completion of their studies.
Each major in the program also had something of their own motto: The Human Security students want to make the world a better place, the Global Political Economy students want to make the world a richer place, and the Security Intelligence students just want to blow shit up.
I was a Security Intelligence major.
All hail the badass Security Intelligence major
When I started in the program in 2008, I was a young American who had just returned from Israel with a bachelors in English Literature and a mood disorder, with a good dose of anxiety on the side. Needless to say, I felt totally out of my league, especially among the “badasses” of the security intelligence majors. Years later, I still explicitly remember feeling like a fish swallowed into the darkness of the ocean as I entered the cathedral for my first day of class. I also remember how, just as I reached the bottom of the stairs that would take me to my first lecture, a green blur of figures in army fatigues sprinted past me.
They were the security students from the U.S. military, many of them just shipped back from the War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan. Beacons of grit, the soldiers kept in shape by running up and down the forty-two floors in the stairwell of the cathedral. I watched them with admiration—that strength, that discipline, it was something you didn’t see very often. It was the fall of 2008 and there were many things I didn’t know yet, like how just a few years down the line I would also be a soldier, serving in the Israeli military.
It was also that first day in the program that I met Trish O’Sullivan (*not her real name), a West Point Military Academy graduate and U.S. Army Officer who had served in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Naturally, I thought she was a bonafide badass. Despite our very different backgrounds as an orthodox Jew and a devout Irish Catholic, we became fast friends, hanging out in the parking lots of local convenience shops with cherry Slurpees and paper cups of cheap bitter coffee after class. I had a grand time playing video games with her madhouse of seven siblings and I even helped her family pick out a Christmas tree. Trish’s family had never met an orthodox Jew before and had no idea why I couldn’t eat any of the food on their table. (Let’s just say I was a real good sport sitting in front of that giant roasted pig at their Christmas feast not saying a peep about how Jews felt about pork.)
That was one hell of a Christmas feast...“Traif!” (Source: screenshot from Robin Hood: Men in Tights)
Anyhow, after the O’Sullivan Christmas feast that night, Trish and I took a stroll around the neighborhood to admire the holiday lights. That’s when she started confiding in me: she told me that combat in Afghanistan had messed with her head (she didn’t go into detail), and that she was hiding the fact that she was bisexual from the army.
“What would happen if you told your fellow soldiers that you’re bisexual?” I asked her. “Or that you’re struggling with something that happened to you back in Afghanistan?”
She looked at me like I was nuts. “I can’t do that. Do you know how everyone will look at me? They’ll think I crack too easily, that I’m too weak to be a good soldier. As far as my unit and my commander and everyone else is concerned, I’m perfect.”
This was the lie that Trish told herself. It was only years later, when I started writing my memoir about my experiences in the Israeli security community, that I realized Trish and I were telling ourselves the same lie: that in order to be accepted in the military or security community, you weren’t allowed to have any flaws. In fact, this lie of “perfection is required to join” is what drives the entire arc of my story as I strove to be accepted into the upper echelon of Israeli intelligence by presenting a seemingly perfect profile.
But perfect doesn’t exist. The people who recruit soldiers and promote officers know this. The people who run security clearance investigations know this, too. But this was still the lie that Trish and I and probably countless other security professionals have told themselves. And in some cases, this lie can break people.
It was barely a month after that Christmas night that Trish disappeared from the security intelligence program. I tried calling her several times on her cell phone, but there was no response. It was as if she had been an apparition, a friend of my imagination.
It was only during a study hour in the student lounge that I unceremoniously found out what had happened to Trish, through the cruel grapevine: Trish had suffered a mental breakdown and dropped out of the program. Apparently, her breakdown was due to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from serving in Afghanistan, and some of the other students were clearly very unsympathetic about this. Much to my horror, they started cracking jokes about how the military obviously didn’t do a very good job at weeding out the “losers” who couldn’t cut it.
Let it be known that not a single one of these students putting down Trish had actually served in the military. They had seen war only from a distance, from a government job or think tank and so on. (Regardless, their response only fueled the “I must be perfect to survive” mentality that I was already nursing in grad school.) As for the other students in the room who had actually served in Iraq and Afghanistan, they fiercely defended Trish, their comrade no matter what. They understood the sacrifices she had made for our country, what she had suffered in combat, and the sheer strength and discipline that had been required for her to reach her rank.
I’ll never know all the details of Trish’s experience, but my guess is that by the time she reached the graduate program in Pittsburgh, she had already accomplished some fairly epic things in her life. The thing about epic stories, I’ve come to realize, is that they always contain a conflict that must be overcome, and the biggest conflict of all is usually born out of the lies we tell ourselves.
According to author and story coach K.M Weiland, the lie your character believes is often the foundation for the character arc, the catalyst that forces personal growth. Whether someone wants the wrong thing or is going about achieving it the wrong way, a person is incomplete on the inside due to some deeply held misconception about himself, or the world, or probably both.
If a character can figure out what this lie is and go about rectifying it, then he at least has a shot at a happily ever after by the end of the story.
Clearly, none of us are perfect, and what makes us strong versus what makes us weak can be deceptive. I believed, too, for many years that you should fake it ‘til you make it. But pretending to be perfect in front of others is a slippery slope that can lead to a belief that if you’re less than perfect, you’re undeserving of acceptance.
I hope for Trish’s sake, wherever she is in the world right now, that she embraced her inner strength and shared the truth about who she is, so that she can have her own piece of happily ever after, too. I think every dedicated soldier deserves at least that.
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About Jessica Lauren Walton: Jessica is a communications strategist, video producer, and writer in the U.S. defense industry. She has written articles on a range of security and mental health topics and conducted interviews with military leadership, psychologists, journalists, CIA officers, filmmakers, and more. Jessica recently completed her memoir about her experience as an American woman struggling with mental illness while trying to get into Israeli intelligence.