STEVE INSKEEP, host:
If you want to hear how much the United States Army has changed in recent years, sit down with two generations of women in the military.
Ms. KELLY MACDONALD (Student, West Point): I'm Kelly MacDonald. I'm a senior at West Point.
Ms. BETSY THOMPSON: I'm Betsy Thompson. I am Kelly MacDonald's mother.
INSKEEP: Kelly's mom joined the Army almost three decades ago. Kelly followed her mom's example. Today, in a time of big deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army expects a lot more from Kelly than it ever did from her mom.
NPR's Rachel Martin has the latest in our series.
RACHEL MARTIN: Kelly and her mom Betsy are alike in a lot of ways: They're both avid runners. They've both got the Irish complexion of Betsy's parents. They both like hiking.
Ms. THOMPSON: This picture is taken during her spring break her first year at West Point. So this was in 2008, and we were hiking at Pole Steeple, which...
MARTIN: And they both decided to become soldiers, but Kelly MacDonald is going into an Army much different than the one her mother joined back in 1983. There are more opportunities, but there's also more risk. Betsy Thompson spent more than a decade in the Army as a dietician. Her daughter Kelly MacDonald is now about to graduate from the Army's prestigious military academy.
I went up to West Point to talk with Kelly about what she expects from her military career. Her mom joined the conversation from her home in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
And, Betsy, are you hearing us?
Ms. THOMPSON: Yes. I think we're OK right now.
MARTIN: In 1983, Betsy 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 Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Ms. THOMPSON: And 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.
MARTIN: For her, it was a stable job at an uncertain time, and they were even going to pay her to stay in shape. But going to war wasn't something she thought a lot about.
Ms. THOMPSON: You always knew that in the back of your mind you're making this commitment for so many years, they can send you anywhere. And they will if they need to. In that respect, though, it was very different than it is today, because young people going into the service, they know what they're getting into.
MARTIN: She ended up staying in the military for 11 years. In that time, she got married, had a baby and got divorced.
Ms. THOMPSON: When I got out of the Army, she was just starting kindergarten, so I don't think she remembers too much of me being on active duty.
MARTIN: Do you, Kelly? What do you remember about that?
Ms. MACDONALD: I do remember a little bit of her wearing the boots and the uniform, living on post and kind of living in that community.
MARTIN: And Kelly's your only child. Did it ever occur to you that she would join the Army?
Ms. THOMPSON: No, not at all. Absolutely not. It's not a subject that really came up often as she was growing up.
MARTIN: But somehow, Kelly says, Army life became part of her.
Ms. MACDONALD: Like, she was the parent I grew up with. And I didn't realize until a little bit later, maybe in high school, how kind of unique that was to have this working single parent kind of 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 kind of follow a similar path.
MARTIN: But Kelly understands that her path will be much different than her mom's. First off: education. Betsy Thompson went to the University of Maryland, and then enlisted in the Army and trained at a military hospital in the U.S. Her daughter Kelly is getting trained to be part of the Army's elite.
(Soundbite of crowd chatter)
MARTIN: It's afternoon at West Point, and cadets are between classes moving from one building to the next - doing so quickly because it's cold here. And most of the cadets are young men.
(Soundbite of crowd chatter)
MARTIN: West Point graduated its first co-ed class in 1980. There were 853 men, 62 women. The number of female graduates has more than doubled since then, attracting a wide variety of students - some who are natural soldiers, others who aren't.
Ms. MACDONALD: West Point has three pillars, they call it: academic, military and physical. And my strong point is the academic one.
MARTIN: The other parts of a West Point experience have been hard for Kelly.
Ms. MACDONALD: I've had to learn how to be thrown into a pool full of, like, the combat gear and the uniform and the boots and swim with it on and take it off, and that kind of thing. We had to take a few combative classes, like fighting kind of techniques.
MARTIN: When she had to pass the required obstacle course test, she hit a wall - literally.
Ms. MACDONALD: It starts out crawling under some bars that are supposed to simulate barbed wire. You go over a vault. You have to jump through a tire, climb over a wall, climb a rope. I actually failed it the first time I took it. I'd never failed at anything before in my life.
MARTIN: West Point is an academically rigorous school, but at its core, it's a place where soldiers learn to soldier, so they can lead troops in combat. There is a debate going on right now about whether women should be allowed into direct ground combat units. And one of the arguments against this is the idea that women just aren't physically and emotionally built to handle these kinds of situations.
Kelly's mom Betsy has had her own concerns about whether Army life was right for her daughter.
Ms. THOMPSON: 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.
MARTIN: OK. Are you a pacifist?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. MACDONALD: I would say that I'm very much not an aggressive person, but I do think that war is necessary at some times. So I wouldn't say I'm a true pacifist.
MARTIN: And she understands that, unlike her mom, she is likely to see war up close. Kelly wants to be an Army doctor, and she's going to med school in the fall. After all her training is done, she'll owe the Army nine years of service.
Ms. MACDONALD: I've shadowed some Army doctors and talked to them, people that have worked at the larger combat support hospitals in Iraq, or even the smaller centers. And they all say it's really rewarding, but of course really challenging, too.
MARTIN: In counterinsurgency wars like Iraq and Afghanistan, it's the medics, the doctors who often find themselves caught up in the fight - ambushes, firefights, rocket attacks. When I asked Betsy what she thinks about her only child doing that kind of work in those kinds of situations, she tells me she gets that question a lot, and she gives me the classic response.
Ms. THOMPSON: People ask me: Well, aren't you proud? And my response is, you know, I don't think of it like that. I just want her to be happy. And, you know, you raise them to be the best they can be, and that's what I want her to keep doing.
MARTIN: Betsy 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.
Ms. MACDONALD: Bye, mom.
Ms. THOMPSON: Bye, Kel. Don't forget to call me this weekend.
MARTIN: Rachel Martin, NPR News.
INSKEEP: Tomorrow, Rachel has the story of another West Point graduate. She's a one-star general in the United States Army, but she may never be able to earn a second, third or fourth star because of Pentagon rules barring women from serving in ground combat units.
You can explore other stories in this series at NPR.org.