The sun has long since risen by the time 27-year-old Specialist Emily Seidel starts her day. Morning for Emily arrives at three in the afternoon as she prepares for her overnight shift at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
Part of her ritual is, of course, putting on her uniform, and every time she does, Emily says she thinks of her cousin Robbie, an Army Ranger and platoon leader who was killed by an IED blast in Iraq in 2006. He was just one year older than Emily, and a big inspiration in her life.
"He is the ultimate hero in my mind –he was so focused on the military," she smiled, remembering his warmth. "He was so personable and friendly, and he was funny. He attracted people to him."
It is Robbie Seidel's passion for life and his memory that in large part motivated Emily to join the Army National Guard in 2009 at the age of 25. Now in the process of serving in Afghanistan for a year, she shares Robbie's focus on this voluntary mission. Based in Pennsylvania, Emily attached to the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division, out of Iowa for this deployment.
While in Afghanistan, she works in intelligence and participates extensively in humanitarian missions—providing proper clothing and shoes to Afghan children, for example.
Like with most National Guard soldiers, there is the citizen side to Emily, too.
When she is not deployed, she is a social studies teacher. Prior to this deployment, she was teaching 10th grade Modern American History. And it is her educator-meets-soldier nature that recently led Emily back to her hometown of Greencastle, Pennsylvania, while on a short home leave.
"This school represents my past, my childhood," said Emily of Greencastle-Antrim Middle School. “I think it's very important they have an understanding about what's going on in Afghanistan."
Among those welcoming her back were a group of 7th grade students, who learned that day a little about military life and the sights and sounds of Afghanistan. "Miss Emily," as the students called her, also talked about the country's history, culture and religion.
Emily showed photographs ranging from snapshots of her living quarters, to National Guard colleagues, to women in burkhas, to young Afghan children receiving shoes and coats as the chill of winter arrived. The photos also showed smiling faces and a quiet struggle.
The American students looked on with empathy for children half a world away. Eyes were opened, as were minds. As a Call to Prayer recording floated like ribbon through the room, the Greencastle students looked contemplative, thoughtful. Naan bread and tea were passed around as questions brewed.
"Boys and girls, they don't attend school together," said Emily of the children in Afghanistan. "A lot of times, the females really only go through about the 5th grade if they have a chance to go to school at all."
It was apparent from their comments that the girls in this Pennsylvania 7th grade class were contemplating that harsh reality. As 12-year-old Madison Hurley said: "Here, I have so many rights. And to think that over there they have hardly any rights—it’s really hard to think about."
For 7th grader David Reikie, his concerns reach to the broader question of what brought the U.S. military to Afghanistan in the first place. He and his classmates are about 12 years old, which means they were infants during the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.
"We've seen videos about the 9/11 attacks, and ever since then, I've been just wanting to figure out...why?" He sat silently, thoughtfully, then continued. "And we still don't know why."
While Emily spent the day enthusiastically answering questions from young curious minds, it was clear that after her return to Afghanistan, still more questions will surface.
For her part, Emily's commitment to service and duty is clear. And the black bracelet she wears to remember her cousin Robbie represents a hard truth.
"Everybody that joins the military always has the question: Am I willing to die for my country?" she said. "That's a question you have to ponder."
For Emily and many others like her, it’s a question answered by the noble act of voluntary military service.