The Conversations My Brother Never Heard

My father is in the military and my family lived abroad for a large portion of my life. Because of a combination of those two reasons, the concepts of ‘situational awareness’ and ‘OPSEC’ was preached to me from an early age.

For those unfamiliar with the Army lexicon, situational awareness is exactly what it sounds like being aware of your surroundings and the occurrences around you. In a similar vein, OPSEC is an abbreviation of operational security. In the military, it is more geared towards making sure the mission is secure and remains classified. However, for me, it has come to mean making sure that someone or multiple people know where I am, what I am doing, and who I am with.

My little brother heard these words being thrown around the dinner table, but he heard them in a joking context. If he had been blissfully unaware of something important or significant (which was often), Dad would laugh and say, “Dude, situational awareness.”

Even then, I knew that I would never be able to have that blissful ignorance that my brother had and the joking reminder for him was a real reminder for me to pay attention, to be alert.

I had to take a self-defense course before we left Virginia for Ghana. I also had to learn the proper way to eat a formal five-course meal and memorize how to set the table for such an event. Both of which were paid for and taught by the U.S. Army. During both, the only thing I actually remember was the disproportionate number of girls to boys attending the classes.

My brother did not attend either of these classes.

The first time I was allowed to ride my bike in public once overseas, I remember my parents both telling me that if someone tried to take me that I hold on to my bike. It would be bigger and make it harder for me to be taken. No running, no fighting, just hold on to my bike. I was sent on my way with situational awareness and OPSEC bouncing around in my head like tiny alarm bells ringing loudly and making me jumpy.

My brother was never told this.

In my early high school years, I had an eclectic group of friends – different nationalities, home-schooled or classmates of mine, and ages ranging fourteen to eighteen. I remember before going to hang out with a subset of my friends — older guys whose father worked for mine among some others — my father sat me down and reminded me to be careful and maintain situational awareness, to not be as trusting.

My brother was never told such a message.

Every time I traveled for a sports tournaments or extracurricular activities and left to go to a party, I was told to stay with a buddy. Situational awareness and/or OPSEC were also reinforced in these moments.

“Don’t let anyone touch your drink, Meg.”
“Know where your friends are at all times.”
“Let me know when you leave when you get home, and if you need a ride.”

My brother also traveled and was asked to not misplace his passport. He also partied, and he was told not to go too wild.

Now, I am twenty-two years old and both concepts still rattle around in my brain. I would say they echo in my brain at least ten times every single day. I think of them as my heart races when a car follows me for longer than a block. As I walk to my car in the parking lot with my keys protruding from clenched fists. Or as I get off the bus, pulling a headphone out of my ear, as I walk back to my apartment. I even vary my routes and times, so I am not an easy target. All of this in the name of maintaining my situational awareness and OPSEC.

My brother, now an Army man himself, has come to understand the seriousness of situational awareness and OPSEC. However, for him, it is a reality of his job and something that will make him a better infantryman. For me, it is a trigger for the paranoia that follows me like a shadow as I move throughout my day.

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