Dora Vasquez-Hellner – PCVI 2021 Graduation Speech

One year ago, I accepted an invitation to the graduation ceremony of the Providence Clemente Veterans Initiative. As each graduate spoke, I was in awe of what PCVI meant to them. What caught my attention was the ease of connecting their military experiences with different aspects of the curriculum, the humanities. I was on the edge of my seat, grasping onto every single word as they expressed their gratitude for this course. 

By the end of the ceremony, I was sold. I had to be part of this tribe. The following day I reached out to Mark to register for the Fall semester. Little did I know I was about to embark on an emotional rollercoaster with PCVI for the next few months.

As an Army veteran of 23 years, I served the majority of my time in support of Special Operations. With every task I performed I always gave it 100%. It was that airborne spirit that lived in me and would guide me through my Army career. Airborne is more than jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. To be Airborne is a state of mind, the strength to persevere under tough conditions, and the opportunity to be a member of an elite international club. Most importantly, being Airborne taught me to stand on my own two feet and confront challenges head on.

As my husband and I traveled to Panama, I became the platoon sergeant of a Human Intelligence platoon that was preparing for a showdown between Uncle Sam and General Manual Noriega. The excitement bumped up a notch on 20 December 1989 when Rangers and paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division assaulted key Panamanian Defense Force positions in the opening phase of Operation Just Cause. 

My platoon was ready and eager to do the mission that they trained so hard for and I was ready to lead them. Tasking came down from 3rd Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group. They needed human intelligence support as they pushed out towards their objectives. It was at this point that I ran into my first incident of gender discrimination.

The battalion cancelled the request when they found out that my platoon was 50% female. Common sense eventually prevailed, and my soldiers deployed into the combat zone in small teams. 7th Group quickly realized that my female soldiers could get the job done. 

My final assignment was First Sergeant of the Military Intelligence Company, 7th Special Forces Group. As you may recall, my previous interaction with 7th Group did not start off in a positive manner. However, due to the professional performance of my platoon during the Panama invasion, 7th Group knew my capabilities and welcomed me with open arms. As First Sergeant, I was the senior enlisted female within the Group. The female population was a grand total of twenty. All eyes were on me and I did not falter in my mission to provide intelligence support to 7th Special Forces.

A couple of years ago I met CPT Kolar, a Cultural Support Team member. She was presenting her military experience to high school students. When she finished, I introduced myself with a brief bio. She immediately hugged me. We kissed, we cried, we hugged again. She thanked me several times over for opening these doors for her. 

Each generation of women in the military push the door open a little bit wider. Just over five years ago, the Secretary of Defense ordered all military branches to integrate their combat units. We have proven that we are mentally tough and can accomplish the mission. We need to hear more of these stories, we women need to tell our stories for all to hear.

As a PCVI student I was presented with the opportunity to share my story. With my first class I was able to immediately connect with a fellow paratrooper from the 82d who had jumped into Panama on 20 Dec 1989. I was in a safe zone. With each passing class my feeling of safety increased as we moved forward in studying the Greek tragedies.

It was with this unit I felt myself gravitating towards Antigone. Antigone, a Greek tragedy written by Sophocles, she is a threat to the status quo; she invokes divine law as defense of her actions. She sacrifices her life out of devotion to principles higher than human law.

This young woman was calling me. She was giving me direction and purpose. Antigone was pulling on my emotions as she was pushing me to reflect on my military experience. 

She was driving my emotional rollercoaster. With this woman by my side, I was able to reflect on my Army career with the many challenges I confronted on a regular basis. I truly believed as I got promoted, my challenges would decrease. This was wishful thinking, as they only increased, but I, just like Antigone, I did not back down with what I believed was right. 

This quote from Antigone is now my guiding light, “Oh it’s terrible when the one who does the judging judges things all wrong…” Through the direction of our PCVI instructors I was able to now view the humanities through a different set of lenses in relation to my military experiences. I was able to engage in healthy conversations with my tribe and let my voice be heard. In spite of our varied military experiences, gender and branches, we respected differing opinions that were shared throughout this program.

I am grateful to PCVI and my fellow veterans for making this connection possible. I encourage all veterans to take advantage of this opportunity to feed your brain and soul. Each professor and each one of my fellow veterans brought something special to the table. Our tribe will forever hold a special place in my heart.