Bodyguard. Sniper. Sergeant. Regulatory policy writer for a small investment bank. If you met 29-year-old Leigh Tierney* now, you wouldn’t know that she had spent five years in the army. She emerged from that experience both a decorated soldier and “more profoundly anti-war” than ever before.
There was a moment at the beginning of basic training when Tierney felt the full weight of the choice she’d made to join the Army.
“That first night I showed up on the bus, and the drill sergeants weren’t too bad yet, but it was still very intimidating,” she remembers. “I got up to the bay where all the bunks were to sleep, and I saw a sign that said, ‘Going AWOL will not solve your problems.’”
That was it. No leaving for five years—a quarter of the length of her life at that point.
Tierney’s 21st birthday didn’t involve getting drinks and celebrating with friends; that day’s memorable moment was lying in a puddle of mud and firing an M-16. She once did as many pushups as she could muster during a PT test with a broken wrist, having hewn off the cast with a steak knife and a saw so as not to appear weak. (The broken wrist she got in a street fight outside of a bar when strangers jumped her friend.)
“It’s hard for me to adjust to what a different person I was. My hobbies were Krav Maga [the Israeli self-defense system] and shooting.” She sounds incredulous saying it herself. Now she practices a martial art, but it’s jujutsu (“the gentle art”), and says she’ll never own a gun again.
Tierney wanted to make sure she got an education that would lead her to a practical job so she chose the most practical thing she could think of: accounting. “A chair, air conditioning, and not to have my name on my shirt,” she says wryly. “Those were my career goals.”
When she left West Point and said goodbye to the army for good, she moved to New York City to attend Fordham under the GI Bill, the ostensible reason she went into the army in the first place. Moving to the city was an intense adjustment for someone dealing with five years’ worth of stress and warzone flashbacks. She remembers walking around the city with two fists in front of her collarbones—in her “work space,” as she had been taught by the military, ready to thrust a fist or draw a gun against an unknown enemy.
“War is a bunch of kids in a mess.” That’s how Tierney describes it to anyone who asks. “Neither side of us was evil,” she adds. “We were just all wrong.”
When she entered the army, Tierney couldn’t run a mile or do a sit-up. When men were reduced to tears by the drill sergeants’ tear-downs, Tierney kept her equanimity, focusing on the exercise at hand. She figured out a way to not only keep pace, but to excel—and she won respect because of it.
The one thing Tierney most struggled with was ruck marching: backpacking at four miles an hour with more than 60 pounds of gear, over hills and uneven terrain. At only 5’3”, she had to run to keep pace as the others walked. During her final 12-mile ruck march, she was the last person stringing behind the rest of the group. Because she was racing to catch up with them, she didn’t get to take a break at any of the resting points. “I never got to re-lace my boots, so they’d gotten loose,” she remembers. “It tore so much skin off the back of my feet that my boots filled with blood.”
“When I made it through that, though, it was a profoundly positive experience even though it was so awful,” she says. She used the episode as a counterpoint throughout the army when things got tough—and still does.
Tierney completed a 12-month tour in Iraq, where she worked as bodyguard to a colonel, taking him to different bases using winding routes that would be harder to track. Iraq is where the singularly intense bonds of military life took hold between her and the other members of her company. As a gay woman operating under “don’t ask, don’t tell,” Tierney says, “I learned how I could love people who had profoundly different views than I had.”
After Iraq, Tierney spent a few months in El Paso during a strange, liminal time known as “out-processing”—a period intended for the soldiers to reconnect with their families after their overseas tours, which Tierney and her fellow lone soldiers spent drinking to excess and partying before they had to get serious again.
Stationed next at West Point, Tierney was out of the hellfire of basic training and the stress of Iraq, but found herself faced with a different kind of challenge. Suddenly being gay was something that could get her kicked out—and there were too many people waiting to use it against her.
“As a female—,” she corrects herself, “I never say that anymore, as a woman—you’re kind of in a no-win situation. To get a modicum of respect, you have to be elite. You have to be better than the men to get the respect of the worst male. But once you do, they’re pissed off that you make them look bad, so they try to tear you down.” She made few friends because she was scared to open up to people.
While on the surface Tierney had little in common with many of her fellow soldiers, they all ended up there for similar reasons. “No one joins the army because things are going well,” she says. Most of them joined because, whether they were coming from poverty or difficult family circumstances, they didn’t know what else to do with themselves.
Though Tierney comes from a liberal family in Boulder, Colorado, her household was far from stable. “One of the reasons I couldn’t go to college was because I couldn’t file for FAFSA, because my mom didn’t file tax returns, and my dad was nowhere to be found.” She saw her older brother and sister graduate college only to wait tables, while a pattern emerged among her friends: enroll in CU, drop out, keep partying, and dissipate. Faced with that kind of future, Tierney “was trying desperately to get out.” A brief stint at art school in San Francisco turned out to be unsustainable, so after over a year of thought and research, she decided on the army.
In the confusing flux of post-adolescence, Tierney needed the structure, discipline, and role models that military life provided. And the fact is, Tierney was not only good at being in the army—she loved parts of it, too. “I loved shooting. I loved a lot of the other soldiers. When I became a sergeant, I loved training soldiers,” she says. It was one of the best experiences of Tierney’s life to hear a young soldier tell her she was her hero.
Looking back on it, though, she says she feels a sense of shame in equal measure. “I’m ashamed I participated in a war that I think contributes to what we’re seeing now from ISIS,” Tierney says. “And I did it not out of some kind of ideology. I did it because I played too many video games growing up and I wanted to pay for college.”
Tierney made only two arrests during her tenure as a military cop at West Point (midnight shifts spent largely cruising around in a patrol car listening to Harry Potter). One was a cut-and-dried DUI. The other involved some local kids who had jumped a fence onto the base, broken into a party and stolen some iPods. She took one of the perpetrators’ IDs and saw that she was 15 years old and from Newburgh, a town known for its high rate of violent crime. When she got the girl’s mother’s information, she realized that the mother was only 16 when she’d had her.
Rebellious, misguided, combative—this was the type of girl whose circumstances might lead her down the very path that Tierney chose. Today, though Tierney benefits from services to help veterans, she wishes that there were programs in place to help young people who are struggling that didn’t hinge on military service. “I have a problem with our culture’s worship of veterans and the military. I think it’s toxic nationalism that reminds me of a lot of regimes I don’t want the United States to remind me of,” she says.
Still, Tierney has her proud moments. One was during her West Point graduation, when she got to meet Michelle Obama and Joe Biden. She was wearing full military regalia, gun included, and was in no mood to be messed with.
“Being Joe Biden, he called me sweetheart.” Her response to the VEEP? “It’s sergeant.”
*In order to tell her story frankly and honestly, Tierney asked to use this pseudonym.
This article originally appeared in the Wild issue. For more inspiring stories about women, check out What I Learned as a Woman Traveling Alone and The Journey of a Female Sommelier: From Paris to New York.