Six years ago, Michelle Witmer of the 32nd M.P. Company in Baghdad became the first female National Guardsman killed while serving in Iraq.
Even before her death, her story had garnered national attention. Michelle Witmer had marched off to war with her twin sister, Charity, and older sister, Rachel. Newspapers and TV networks could not resist the story about three telegenic women from New Berlin, Wis., decked out in camouflage determined to serve their country.
After Michelle's death, her parents, John and Lori, were thrust into the spotlight. They struggled with their grief, while also struggling to force the military to move their remaining daughters out of a combat zone for good.
Witmer has now written about his experience in a book called Sisters in Arms: A Father Remembers. It examines his daughters' lives in the military while also raising pointed questions about what it really means to have women serve in wartime.
In the book, Witmer writes with candor about the minutes after he first got the terrible news about his daughter Michelle. He says his first instinct was to get his other daughters home.
"Any parent in the same situation, I believe would feel the same way," he says. "You just had this tremendous loss, a part of you has been torn out. Later, people would accuse us of being unpatriotic. At the time, it didn't even go that deep. It was just I had to protect my daughters."
But then he had to come to grips with the fact that it wasn't his decision to make; it was his daughters' decision. "And as much as my instincts were to protect them, they were grown up now. They were soldiers," he says.
In the end, it wasn't John Witmer's or his daughters' decision, because the Witmers became so high-profile, the National Guard thought they might actually bring danger to their fellow soldiers, he says.
"We'd actually gotten death threats [from] people identifying themselves as part of the insurgency," he says. "Saying if they saw them again, they would make them a target."
Through the experience, Witmer says he has learned a lot about women in the military. He says he always imagined his daughters -- not only as reservists, but also as women -- in a support role. Then, he says, he began getting e-mails from them in Baghdad and found out that they were going on raids and defending police stations.
"It was quite a shock," he says. "I think it wasn't until I began getting those first letters home from Baghdad that it sunk in. … It should have registered when I went to their basic training graduation and they explained they had all of the same training as their male counterparts -- same weapons training, same physical training. They were prepared to do what they did."
Witmer says he thinks that people need to fully respect what women are doing in combat.
"The rules that seem to be segregating what men's roles are and women's roles are, they don't apply anymore," he says. "So let's own up to that."
When asked what he thinks people don't understand about war, Witmer says he doesn't think that people understand what it's like for a family to wait for its soldiers to come home. He also says that people don't understand what it means to lose a soldier.
"If I can get just one person to understand what that statistic means -- when it's read over the news or it's reported in the newspaper -- I feel like in some way I've done what I've wanted to do," he says. "Because I think when you fully appreciate the cost of war, then you go to war more carefully. I want people to understand what the true cost is and I want them to make sure that we spend the lives of our soldiers very, very carefully."