Those of us who have served in uniform know that less than 1% of Americans can proudly say that they have worn the uniform. I am counted among that 1%. I was the first female in my squadron to be promoted to the senior NCO ranks in a maintenance career field. Several other women had been promoted to Senior NCOs, but they had cross trained into administrative career fields to do so. Several of the positions that I held within maintenance, I taught myself as there was a need to fill these positions, as they are part of the squadron’s maintenance backbone. I held two separate career fields, the second of which I achieved honor graduate status upon graduation from that course. I hoped to become the first female Chief, E-9, in the maintenance career field. Not that it would have mattered to anyone else, but it mattered to me. I was an honor graduate out of Basic Training, 1% of the 1%, in spite of my own father and a neighbor wagering a bet on how long I would last in Basic before being washed out and receiving an entry level separation, or more plainly stated, fail. Leaving behind two small boys to build a better life than that promised as a young, unwed mother who had grown up in the West End of Providence.
During PCVI’s spring semester, I was introduced to a film called “Soldier On: Life after Deployment”. This film chronicles the challenges of three service members, all female, returning home and trying to transition into their “normal” routines as wives, mothers, partners, friends…..finding instead hollowness, distance, and an inability to get their shit together. Now this is the big picture. What resonated most with me was the story that Natasha Young told of the way life could have been had she not enlisted in the Marine Corps, how her career could have ended had she not deployed, even before her physical injuries prevented her from continuing her service to this county; the stark contrast to how her follow Marines, men are often, no, I’ll venture to say always treated differently.
To have both the director, Susan Sipperelle and Natasha visit the class to talk about the movie and life after the movie, was inspiring. What I shared about my career was on the outside, the real battle is within. Not born in war although I served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rather within the squadron I loved. At the hands of those who from the start of my career told me that I had no business in that squadron. We don’t want “fucking women” greeted me when I returned from basic training and my initial technical training. At 22 it made me work harder. When faced with the trials that came later, like being told that I should not deploy and leave my children at home, I had to fight to earn my place on the roster. This resulted in me being told that I chose my career over her family. When I had made it to E-8, Senior Master Sergeant, I was told the rank was given not on merit, but rather because someone felt bad for me. Years of bullying and sexual assault. Yes, assault not just harassment, proved to be too much.
Natasha Young in “Soldier On” showed so much resolve. She is a female veteran that I could connect with. A girl from Dorchester who beat the odds, felt crushed and confused after giving her every ounce of being to the military than rising again. She was just a girl from Dorchester who could have been counted among the rising statics. That of girls who “became pregnant and did not graduate high school”. To which she said was the social norm. I was pregnant in high school, graduated and had to figure out a way to not become a statistic or social norm like many of my peers in the inner city. I wanted to go to college and the Air National Guard would get me there.
It did. I hold an associate degree from the Community College of the Air Force, a bachelor’s degree from URI and am well on my way to a master’s degree. But my beloved shattered me. Around me lie pieces of my confidence, my pride, and my self-worth. For the first time in many years, I see hope where only humiliation and doubt existed. Though the discovery of struggles and perseverance depicted in the written word, art and the interpretation of both, I have discovered a way to channel the doubt and grief that often cloud my vision. I am thankful that PCVI has provided the backdrop for learning not only the humanities but also the similarities in experiences that we, the scholars, share as the proud veterans, that we truly are.