First Lt. Erica MacSwan was just 7 years old when 9/11 happened. Yet, she has vivid memories of it.
Her family lived in New Hampshire at the time. Her dad, who worked for IBM, commuted to New York City for work. On that morning, he was running late for a meeting.
"He didn't get far before a black blanket covered him," MacSwan recalls, "and he just crouched down, and then he couldn't see anything. The city went absolutely silent, which is obviously so unusual for New York City."
With the help of a first responder, she says, he managed to get inside a nearby restaurant and saw on TV that there had been an attack. He was shaken but a few hours later, he managed to rent a car and drive back to New Hampshire.
"All in all, it had a huge, huge impact on me. My dad could have died in that situation."
That memory was in the back of MacSwan's mind when she was recruited to swim for West Point in her junior year of high school. She loved swimming but decided she wanted to pursue the military aspect of the academy, too.
"I had a sense of purpose in protecting my family," she says, "also, broadly speaking, those who I knew that could also be affected by terrorism and other acts of violence."
Would she be in the Army had 9/11 never happened? "Honestly, probably not."
Today, MacSwan is a 23-year-old intelligence officer in the US Army. I meet with her at the Fort Carson Army base in Colorado Springs, Colorado; she is only a couple of days away from her first deployment to Afghanistan.
Her day begins at sunrise at a frozen parking lot. She's standing in formation along with about 50 other soldiers. She's in her workout gear, chin up, shoulders back and hair pulled back in a tight bun.
MacSwan’s tour in Afghanistan will last for about a year. She started getting ready months before. "It's just a lot to think about," she says. Some of it, just ordinary stuff — things you'd do before going away on any long trip — like filing taxes and paying bills.
But of course, this is no vacation. MacSwan is heading to a battlefield, and she has no illusions about the risks. She adds her preparation for the worst-case scenario to her to-do list in the event she doesn't come home.
"For me, since I don't have a spouse or children that I would like to will specific things to, I'll just let it go to the next of kin, which is my mom."
But MacSwan doesn't only have herself to worry about. The 23-year-old is the leader of her platoon, which means she's responsible for the safety and well-being of 26 other soldiers — all men.
All soldiers will have to complete medical tests before they leave to make sure they are healthy and fit for the mission. Women will complete an additional pregnancy test.
Later, I sit in on one of MacSwan's training sessions. This one is not so much about combat, but more to do with the culture the soldiers are about to enter. It’s titled, “How to Handle Islamic Texts.”
The soldiers range in age between 18 and 45. They sit on metal chairs, listening closely.
"Does anybody know what percentage of Afghanistan is Muslim?" MacSwan asks, holding an orange Post-it with her notes scribbled on it.
"Ninety percent," one soldier calls out. "Eighty," shouts another. "Higher," says MacSwan, coming back with, "99.7 percent."
She continues to say, "going to Afghanistan, where our mission is to advise and assist, we want to be considerate of their culture and their religion."
Here's what she wants her soldiers to take away: The Quran is Islam's holy book. Don't touch it if you're not Muslim. If you are in a situation where you absolutely have to, inform your superior and use a clean cloth.
It’s no accident that MacSwan is talking about this. In 2012, American soldiers were accused of burning copies of the Quran that they claimed Taliban prisoners used to write messages in. Word got out and hundreds of Afghans poured into the streets to protest. The demonstrations lasted for five days and left 30 people dead, including four Americans.
This is not a scenario MacSwan — or the Army — wants to be repeated.
Back at MacSwan’s office, a New England Patriots calendar hangs on the wall next to her desk. It's a clue to her roots. She was born in Boston and grew up in New England. Her parents are devout Christians, she says, and they passed their faith onto her. She's the first in her family to join the military.
I ask her what it's like to be in charge of 26 soldiers, some of whom are twice her age?
"It is a lot when you think about the leadership that has been in the Army for 20, 30 years," she says. "It's difficult to put yourself out there and say, 'All right, well, I'm in charge and I'm going to make the rules.' That's why I try not be like that. But at the end of the day, I make the decisions."
Every soldier in MacSwan's platoon gets to take a hard box full of personal items to Afghanistan. It's kind of like a checked bag on a regular flight. The boxes go into large shipping containers that are loaded onto large cargo planes.
"There's a pillow, laundry detergent, I brought my hammock, some coffee, feminine products, books, civilian pajamas [yes, there are military pajamas], red, comfy slippers."
MacSwan has packed enough toiletries and coffee for about two months. After that, she says, she can either buy items like shampoo on base or order them online. "Amazon delivers to APO addresses — Army Post Offices."
As an intelligence officer, MacSwan won't leave the base much. There are upsides and downsides to that. Upside: She likely won't be dodging bullets. Downside (and she learned this when she previously deployed to Iraq for four months): "The whole stir-craziness of being contained in that space. Going between your bed and your work site and the gym and where you eat. And that's it."
In Iraq, she missed fresh fruits and the ability to drive wherever she wanted at any given time.
She also missed her parents and two sisters. This time, there is also 1st Lt. Timothy Lynch, a Black Hawk pilot, who she has been dating for about a year.
Sitting at the dinner table at MacSwan's place, they discuss what her absence will mean for their relationship.
"We calculated and it's 11 1/2 hours ahead in Afghanistan,” MacSwan says, “so when he’s getting ready to go to bed, I’ll be getting up in the morning.”
For them to stay in touch, MacSwan will have to purchase her own Wi-Fi, which can cost up to $80 a month, depending on the plan.
As tough as this separation is for MacSwan and Lynch, they say it helps that they both serve in the military. "It helps a lot with communication and understanding what the other is going through," Lynch says. "I’m incredibly proud of Erica. She's a strong woman, and I know she’s going to come out of this deployment an even stronger woman.”
As the time I have with MacSwan draws to an end, I want to know her thoughts on the war in Afghanistan — the war that has lasted for most of her life and has cost thousands of lives (including many innocent civilians) and displaced thousands of others.
What does winning look like to her?
"I think for me, if our platoon is able to assist in [...] advising the Afghan army in fighting and eradicating these violent forces, then that would definitely be successful," she says, "even if it's a small impact."
"Do you have confidence in the president," I ask.
"I would say so. I think that he has surrounded himself with many seasoned veterans, specifically General [James] Mattis and others and these individuals will definitely help advise him and make the correct choices."
Hours after I left Fort Carson, MacSwan boarded a plane to Afghanistan. She sent me an audio recording describing what is going through her mind as she gets on the plane.
"I'm a bit nervous," she says in the recording, "but excited, as well. I don't think it's really hit me that I've really left. I'm excited to see what's in store and really excited to get to know the mission and understand my job better over there."
To calm her nerves, she listens to music. She has a playlist ready on her phone and her favorite is a worship song by an Australian band called Hillsong United.
She promises to stay in touch.