With all the news stories covering women in combat, my life, the one I left, has come to the forefront of my thoughts. I can’t open my social media news feeds without the trending stories: women in ranger school, “Ashley’s War”, the real G.I Janes, etc. I look at the pictures and a part of me smiles with pride at these girls I personally know and empathize with. They are strong and amazingly capable, their stories deserve to be told. I am proud of all of them.Yet, as much as I want to support the excellent news coverage, I want to crawl back into bed and stay there. I want to hide from the world and make it go away, pretend it doesn’t exist.
This is because of the mental, emotional and physical toll the military took on me. I remember when I decided to join the military. I was 18 and dating a former infantrymen. He wove stories together of adventure and intrigue. I fell in love and jumped into the Army with both feet. I was motivated and enthralled with being the best. I didn’t only want to be competitive, I wanted beat the guys; and I did. I graduated college as a Distinguished Military Graduate. I branched Engineer as a 21-year-old. I conquered the Sapper Leaders Course where I was the 23rd female to graduate (in Oct 2008) since the course had been opened to females in 1999. At the time, I had no idea how many females had made it through. I thought a more had and my accomplishment was nothing unique. All I cared about was the training and learning about myself. That is what the school did more than anything; it taught me about myself. I learned I hated the cold. In fact I am not a nice person when I become cold, I can’t sleep, I won’t eat, all I care about is getting warm. I thought about quitting and learned to rely on others to keep me motivated when I wanted to quit, because they all want to quit. I learned to keep walking when tears would slowly roll down my cheeks at my self-doubt. In the end I learned I was capable of doing much more than I previously thought.
When I got to my unit, I deployed to Iraq. I was shoved into the military intelligence section for the entire deployment. I was frustrated. I didn’t understand how I was the only lieutenant who could be stuck in an office job for the entire deployment. What bothered me more is I was the only Sapper-qualified lieutenant. This meant if you took away gender, I was the only qualified junior officer to lead Soldiers in a Sapper unit. Alas, I was the only one they refused the position. With frustration, I kept my head up. I worked hard even though I was constantly being shoved into positions I didn’t want. My motivation would waiver and I would keep thinking to myself one day I will have the job I want. One day I will be in the fight. This would have been fine and I would have continued to manage, but my home life exploded.
My spouse died and it left me in a tough spot. Mentally and emotionally I was bleeding. Physically I had lost weight. I was a mess financially as I struggled to pay off the debts in his name without life insurance. I felt alone and miserable. With the military as my job, there was no time for me to heal. No opportunity to move home and deal with the events that had destroyed me. Instead I was stuck in a place rendering me with minimal support and a lot of emotional pain. I began a downward spiral. I started drinking heavily, having inappropriate relationships, demonstrating risky behavior. I was trying to deal with the pain in my heart the best I could, given my circumstances. The connection between the military and my spouse was so strong, it had been a huge determiner in our relationship. To move on with my life I needed to get away from the military. I needed a change, yet I was stuck in a job I didn’t have the heart for anymore. The person I was when the adventure started didn’t exist anymore.
Yet, when the opportunity arose, less than a year after my spouse died, to leave and deploy I saw it as a solution to my problems. I could leave the place we had created memories and I could save money. I was using it as an escape. The deployment offered the excitement I had initially expected from the military. It was a great opportunity for me to try to be my old self. The deployment was with special operations. The best of the best. When I went to the selection course, I wasn’t nervous. I knew I was capable; I knew I would succeed. The selection was easy compared to Sapper School. The girls were motivated and impressive, I put my head down and tried to focus. I made it though and learned I would deploy to Herat, Afghanistan, with a Special Operations Team.
From the beginning my partner and I didn’t get along. I spent so much time trying to reconcile our relationship, I didn’t put the requisite amount of time into the mission. However, our location was relatively safe with little to no combat activity while we were there. I usually describe my deployment as rainbows and unicorns, hugs and kisses. We spent the time talking to the women of the different villages, learning their culture, working in a medical clinic, and supporting the local schools. Still, I was on the front line, in the villages, pulling security, doing what the guys do. The most memorable experience I have was creating a soccer league with the children. They would line up daily to be scanned for any type of weapon before being allowed to play soccer for an hour each day. The beauty of a little Afghan girl playing soccer with a huge smile on her face will forever be planted in my memory.
Why then, if I have such beautiful memories do I cringe at reliving my military career; having to remember losing a comrade; dealing with the political push for women on the front lines? It was exhausting. Perhaps it took its toll on me because I never had the time to heal from the loss of my spouse. But outside my loss, the emotional, mental, and physical fight that is fought by each one of these women is something few will ever know. Physically, some women can keep up, in fact, some women can beat a lot of men. The stress of being in danger takes a toll, yet this is the same physical toll men have to suffer through. Mentally, it is a whole different ball game. As a female you are expected to perform better, faster, smarter, and more professionally. If you don’t then you are considered the weak link. Emotionally, women will always be the outsider, women will never be “one of the guys.” Women are always on the receiving end of the guys betting of who can sleep with her first. Emotionally on these deployments women are isolated. To be taken seriously and maintain a state of professionalism, all walls have to stay up. A state of constant defense is created. Then, when another female does something to fit the “female stereotype” the pressure to perform better increases, because everyone is waiting for your moment of weakness to show you will fail too.
By the time I was done with my deployment I was looking forward to coming back to the states for some stability to heal, yet right when I got back I was jerked to a new location, then another. Constantly on the move. Constantly on the defensive. Constantly being watched for a mistake and failure. This crushed me. I needed time to recover, to heal, to process, instead I was greeted with contempt and hatred for being a professional women who just wanted to do her job. The memories make me defensive and physically ill so my only solution is to pretend they don’t exist. To stop acknowledging my past. I try to stay away from it so I can breath, yet some days the memories catch up to me. I hope one day when they do I’ll be able to smile with pride. It’s hard to balance what I need to be healthy and wanting to show my support for the strong women who are still in the fight. They are much stronger than I am and I am proud of each of their accomplishments.