hide captionMarelli, last winter on the waterfront of Jersey City, N.J., against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline. She says that before Sept. 11, she and her friends would frequent the park on the Jersey side of the river and gaze at the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
Liesl Marelli, 19, was living the college life and loving every minute of it. Though she hadn't declared a major, she studied hard, made the dean's list at Montclair State University, shot photos for the campus newspaper, and enjoyed hanging out with her friends.
"I had a comfortable life," Marelli says of her privileged upbringing in the suburban New Jersey community of Florham Park. She admits she was more into designer clothes, shoes and accessories by Guess or Gucci, not green — as in U.S. Army green.
"I grew up in an area where it's very fashionable," she says. "There's a lot of very nice cars, very nice houses, very nice jobs, and very nice salaries. So I really didn't have a problem being a feminine female, getting all decked out and looking as pretty as possible."
One of her favorite hangouts was the World Trade Center. "We'd go to the mall there, and there was this pasta place that was one of my favorite places to go," she says, adding that she'd had a date planned there. "I was going to go to that beautiful restaurant on top, and we were just going to have a ball. That date, of course, never happened."
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Marelli says she was driving to school and listening to the radio — one of those wacky morning shows with prankster hosts. "At first, I thought it was a joke," she says of early reports of the terrorist attacks. Though she noticed something different in the tone of the radio announcer's voice, Marelli didn't pay close attention, because she was running late, and she headed into her classroom.
"I was sitting there, and this girl comes in from the hallway and said whatever tower it was just crashed, it had collapsed. And we were looking around like, 'What is she talking about?'" Marelli remembers. "I had gone there to eat at the mall, you know? I had friends that worked there. And we were like, 'What is going on?' And there was a panicked silence."
Marelli says she immediately felt compelled to do something to help. She figured if there were survivors, they'd need blood. So she joined several hundred other people in her hometown area of Morris County and went to the local hospital to give blood. But as she rolled up her sleeve, she had this feeling it just wasn't enough.
"I had to do more," she says. "So that day, I actually decided I was going to start looking into what kind of service I can do for my country." She decided to enlist.
"For some reason, it clicked after that point," she says. It angered her that terrorists had infringed on her world. "We're America, we're a strong nation, and we go out and protect other places, and we go out and we help other people. And here we are getting attacked — right there, miles from my house. I can't just sit and watch that happen."
Marelli says she first thought about volunteering for the Red Cross or joining the Peace Corps, but rather quickly settled on military service. The decision shocked her friends and family, she says. "It's not something that anyone ever strived to do."
Marelli's mother, Doris Purdy, says she tried to give her daughter a reality check. "I was reminding her, 'You're the one who doesn't even like public bathrooms. What are you thinking about?'"
Purdy rented the 1980 farce Private Benjamin, which starred Goldie Hawn as a spoiled rich girl who joins the military. She forced her daughter to watch it. "And I said, 'Liesl, you know, everybody has green socks.' You're talking about somebody [for whom], you know, one of life's necessities are lots of shoes," Purdy says.
They both now laugh at the memory. But Marelli says her mother's more serious questions did prompt her to consider her decision to enlist more carefully. Ultimately, she says, that strengthened her resolve to sign up for service.
Marelli says she and her mother talked about what would happen if she should die while serving. "Don't worry. Things happen for a reason. It'll be fine,' she remembers telling her mother.
Purdy says she remained uneasy. "When you sit there, and you watch the process of your kid making out a will and naming people on a life-insurance policy, that was kind of creepy," she says. "But, it's where her heart was."
Marelli spent nearly three years in the New Jersey National Guard. She was actively deployed for two of those years, but she seems disappointed that it was stateside and not in Iraq or Afghanistan. Still, her duty included some tough roles — including a stint in casualty and mortuary affairs, where she dealt with paperwork for those injured or killed in the line of duty.
"I kept on seeing my name on these papers," she says. "This is why I signed up. These are my people. I just happened to not be in that unit, I just happened to not be there. But that doesn't mean, somewhere down the road, this won't happen to me."
Marelli says many of her friends back home still don't understand her decision to serve. But she is already thinking about re-enlisting, maybe entering officers' training and making the military her career.
"I happen to love my full-time job working here, surprisingly enough," she says. "I figure, if you wake up loving what you do, why leave it?"
Marelli now works for the Illinois National Guard in Springfield; she was promoted to the rank of sergeant as of Sept. 8, and she is finishing her degree at the University of Illinois.