After living in a kibbutz for more than five years, Hilary Stapleton was looking for a way to repatriate back to the United States.
Stapleton was 15 in 1968, when her father was granted a contract with the Israeli Air Force and they moved to the Middle East. Her mother, a citizen of Israel, had died when Stapleton was young, so Stapleton was sent to live in a kibbutz seven miles from the Jordanian border while her father tended to his business dealings.
“At the time, the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) was dropping bombs into the area,” Stapleton said. “When we weren’t in a bomb shelter, we used the shelters as a disco.”
In a kibbutz, everyone has a job. Since she didn’t speak Hebrew, Stapleton was sent to take an administrative assistant course.
“As an immigrant, I split my day between studying the language and working somewhere, with the kids, in the kitchen or in the fields,” she said.
At the age of 20, Stapleton needed to decide whether she wanted to return to the United States or apply for a permanent deferment and remain in Israel. Since her mother was Jewish, Stapleton had dual citizenship. Once she made the decision to return, Stapleton also decided the best way to repatriate was to join the military. However, since she couldn’t attend school in the kibbutz, she didn’t have a high school diploma.
“I got my GED at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and was sent to Frankfort, Germany, for the U.S. Army exam,” she said.
Since it had been years since she spoke English, “I didn’t do well,” she said.
Stapleton needed another plan.
“I had relatives in New York City,” she said. “I returned to New York and stayed with my grandparents.”
When she was reacquainted with the language enough to make another stab at enlisting in the military, she went to a recruiting station and took the test a second time.
“I joined the Army,” she said. “I wanted a place to belong after being in a kibbutz, and I wanted to do more with my life.”
In a kibbutz, one is never alone and someone is always giving orders. Stapleton figured the military would be a good fit.
Two weeks before she reported for basic training, in October 1973, the Yom Kippur War broke out, and “that gave me pause,” she said.
Stapleton did board the plane to Atlanta, where she caught a bus to Fort McClellan, in Alabama.
During basic training, “I learned how to use an American washing machine,” she said.
In January 1974, Stapleton began advanced individual training at Fort Gordon, in Georgia.
“I learned a lot of really cool stuff at a time when computers were the size of a small room,” she said.
Her first duty station was Fort Hood, in Texas, where she put her new skills to work in data processing.
After six months, Stapleton requested an assignment in Europe. In 1975, she was stationed in Frankfort, Germany, assigned to a field unit supporting NATO exercises.
“We worked out of teletype vans in the woods, living in tents, eating C-rations and lots of powdered leftovers from World War II and Korea,” she recalled, likening it to an adventure. “I showered in water from the Rhine.”
Stapleton made a lot of good friends with whom she has remained in contact with through the years. She also met her best friend, who became her husband.
“He was in the same platoon as me,” she said. “We met and got married in Germany.”
They returned to Redstone Arsenal in Hunstville, Alabama, in 1978. Stapleton had already been discharged, but her husband remained in the Army, in special ordinance.
“He came home one day and said, ‘Do you want to go to Italy?’” she said.
They spent three years in Vicenza, where Stapleton used her GI Bill to learn the language, life and culture of Italy.
“Language was my passion,” she said.
After three years, they returned home. Her husband was discharged and they moved to his hometown of Fargo, North Dakota, to figure out what to do next.
He went into food distribution, a career that took them to many areas of the country. She worked for several airlines and made a lot of new friends. They arrived in Nashville in 1991 ready to settle down. They bought a home in Brentwood. He started his own consulting group and she is doing tech support for health-care applications.
“I was proud to serve,” Stapleton said. “The military gave me a path to my future, one I never envisioned. It gave me family, opportunities to learn skills, help reacclimating into American society and get my degree — the first in my family. I’m proud to have served.”