No one was more surprised than Katherine Diefenbach by her career choice. “When I was college-searching with my dad, he asked me if I’d be interested in going to a military academy,” she recalls. “I said, ‘No,’ flat-out.” But 9/11 changed her mind. Diefenbach was a sophomore at Barnard when she saw the Twin Towers burn and crumble to the ground. Afterward, she felt driven to serve her country by becoming an officer in the Army.
At the start of her junior year, she joined the Army ROTC at Fordham University, which ran concurrently with her final two years at Barnard. When she graduated with degrees in political science and psychology, she also became a commissioned second lieutenant. The following year, she was deployed to Iraq for a one-year mission as a platoon leader in charge of 60 soldiers. The platoon’s main responsibility: managing radios and other communications devices for soldiers in Baghdad. She recalls one particularly unnerving nighttime mission: “We were on a convoy from our main post in Baghdad to an outlying post to drop off soldiers and equipment,” she says. “It was dark, so we lost sight of the road and went off the edge. We were able to get back on the road, but it was frightening to think of what might have happened.”
Diefenbach has since been promoted to captain, and is working on a law degree at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and at the White House as the Army White House social aide manager. The Army is footing the bill for her coursework. After she graduates, she’ll attend a military-law training program in Charlottesville, Virginia, and then serve for six years as a military lawyer. Diefenbach believes that Barnard prepared her well for the challenges of the military. “We’d always get phone messages from Dean Dorothy Denburg, saying, ‘Hello, my beautiful strong Barnard women,’” she recalls. “It’s still a man’s world in a lot of ways, but the women I meet here in the military are incredibly strong. Barnard gives women a sense of empowerment, and helped me to realize my own strength.”
- Kathryn Hawkins
- photograph by Noah Sheldon