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Soldier Sisters

When you’re a member of the Army National Guard, you need to be “Always Ready, Always There.” That’s just what Kathy and Jenny Conn were in January, 2005, when they were called upon by the Guard to train for service in Iraq.

Jenny, left, and Kathy Conn

The twenty-three-year-old sisters (actually two-thirds of a set of triplets that also includes a brother) took three semesters off from their classes at IUP. They were involved in communications operations with the Guard in Ramadi, Iraq, about seventy miles west of Baghdad.

The Conns said they have easily readjusted to life in the States after their twelve-month deployment in Iraq, and they currently have sophomore standing at IUP. Graduates of Rockwood High School in Somerset County, Pa., they became members of the Guard more than five years ago after a recruiter visited their school. “We made a pact,” Jenny said.

The Army National Guard is one component of the Army. According to its website, it primarily comprises “civilians serving their country, state, and community on a part-time basis—usually one weekend each month and two weeks during the summer.”

Jenny and Kathy joined the Guard before September 11, 2001; at that time, their unit (C Company, 28th Signal Battalion) hadn’t been deployed in ten years. It is a unit that has traditionally worked mostly in natural disasters, most recently in Louisiana as part of the Katrina relief crew.

In early 2005, when they were called up for active duty, the sisters didn’t really know what to expect. They trained for six months in Mississippi before they joined the thousands of Pennsylvania Guard members deployed overseas for the first time since World War II. They served their part of the peacekeeping mission, working mostly with computers at the brigade help desk.

Twelve-hour shifts left little time for Jenny and Kathy to interact with life outside their brigade. From the little they saw of the Iraqi way of life, there were very few signs of normalcy.

For moral support, the sisters were glad they were stationed together in Ramadi, which is considered a “hot zone” in Iraq. They spent most of their time together and had each other to turn to when they missed their family and friends in the U.S. The availability of phones through their job site allowed contact with home, although the eight-hour time difference often got in the way.

Although the tragedy of having close friends or even acquaintances killed in the line of duty is hard to manage and often leaves scars on people’s lives, the sisters agreed that their time spent in Iraq was worthwhile and a great learning experience.

Since their return from Iraq last July, the sisters “look at things differently,” according to Jenny. “I appreciate the privileges,” she said. “I can get up in the morning and decide what [outfit] I want to wear.” After spending twelve months in buildings with no bathrooms, they have, she said, come to “realize what luxuries [we] have at home.”

Kathy said she was especially excited for the recent holidays. With a family that includes their brother and four older sisters, “Family is something you really miss,” Jenny said.

The women said they strongly encourage students who are thinking about joining the Guard or any branch of the service to get in touch with them by e-mail with questions or concerns. “It’s an experience that allows you to learn a lot and view life differently,” Kathy said.

Jenny and Kathy live together at IUP and are studying Nuclear Medicine Technology and Nursing, respectively. Their thoughts frequently turn to the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 28th Infantry Division, with whom their unit served. “We were both very honored to be attached to them,” Kathy said. “We have lots of memories.”