Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Support NHPR's local journalism that brings clarity, context, and community!

A Soldier's Life For A Mother And Her Daughter

Part 4 in a series.

Kelly MacDonald and her mom, Betsy Thompson, are alike in a lot of ways. They're both avid runners. They both have the Irish complexion of Betsy's parents. They both like hiking. And they both decided to become soldiers.

But MacDonald, who is about to graduate from West Point, is going into an Army much different from the one her mother joined in the early 1980s. There are more opportunities, but there's also more risk.

Betsy's Story

In 1983, Thompson was a senior in college, deciding what to do with her life. Going into the military was not part of her plan. She wanted to go into health care, but the job market at the time was grim, so she applied for an internship at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

"It had to be the happiest day of my life when I got that acceptance letter in April of 1983. It meant that I would be commissioned as an officer into the Army Medical Specialist Corps," Thompson says.

For her, it was a stable job at an uncertain time. They were even going to pay her to stay in shape. But going to war wasn't something she thought a lot about.

"You always knew that in the back of your mind, you're making this commitment for so many years, and they can send you anywhere, and they will if they need to. But it was very different than it is today, because young people going into the service know what they're getting into," she says.

Thompson joined the Army in 1983 and stayed for 11 years.
David Gilkey / NPR
Thompson joined the Army in 1983 and stayed for 11 years.

Thompson ended up staying in the military for 11 years. In that time she got married, had a baby and got divorced. "When I got out of the Army, she [Kelly] was just starting kindergarten and I don't think she remembers too much of me being on active duty."

"I do remember a little bit of her wearing the boots and the uniform, living on post and kind of living in that community," MacDonald says.

Thompson says she never expected her daughter to join the Army. "No. Absolutely not. It's not a subject that came up," she says.

But somehow, MacDonald says, Army life became part of her. "She was the parent I grew up with," MacDonald says. "And I didn't realize until later on in high school how kind of unique that was to have this working single parent raising me while she was in the Army. I kind of didn't appreciate until later how independent and strong she'd been, and I really kind of admired that and wanted to follow a similar path."

But Kelly understands that her path will be much different from her mom's, starting with her education. Thompson went to the University of Maryland and then went into the Army and trained at a military hospital in the U.S. Her daughter is getting trained to be part of the Army's elite.

Kelly's Story

West Point graduated its first coed class in 1980. There were 853 men and 62 women. The number of female graduates has more than doubled since then, attracting a wide variety of students. Some of them are natural soldiers; some of them aren't.

MacDonald says academics are her strong suit. The other parts of a West Point education — military training and physical training — have been more difficult for her. And when she had to pass the required obstacle course test, she hit a wall, literally.

"I actually failed it the first time I took it," MacDonald says. "I'd never failed at anything before in my life."

West Point is an academically rigorous school, but at its core this is a place where soldiers learn to soldier so they can lead troops in combat. And there is a debate going on right now about whether women should be allowed into direct ground combat units. One of the arguments for keeping women out of these units is the idea that women just aren't physically and emotionally built to handle these kinds of situations.

MacDonald's mom has had her own concerns about whether Army life is right for her daughter. "I look at my daughter as more of a pacifist, and she's very reserved and quiet, and you just don't imagine a West Point cadet having that type of personality," Thompson says.

MacDonald dismisses the characterization. It's true she's not an aggressive person, MacDonald says, but she does think war is necessary at some times.

And she understands that, unlike her mom, she's likely to see war up close.

MacDonald wants to be an Army doctor, and she's going to medical school at Brown University in the fall. After all her training, she'll owe the Army nine years of service.

In counterinsurgency wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, medical personnel can find themselves caught up in the fight — ambushes, firefights, rocket attacks. MacDonald says she's prepared for that. What does Thompson think about her only child potentially facing those kinds of situations?

"I just want her to be happy," she says. "You raise them to be the best they can be, and that's what I want her to keep doing."

Thompson expects her daughter to go further than she did in the Army. Of course, for women in today's military, going further means going to the fight.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Related Content

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.