I was born and raised in Texas with my brother until we were taken from my mother for severe abuse and neglect and placed in a children’s shelter. I vowed at 14 that no matter what I had to do, I would not become my mother – pregnant at 16 and addicted to drugs and alcohol.
After graduating from high school, I worked two jobs to pay my way through school. But I kept running into roadblocks. If I had not heard my best friend talk about going to see a Navy recruiter, I never would have considered the military as an option.
After taking the ASVAB test, the Navy recruiter told me I was only qualified to be a yeoman according to my scores. Although I didn’t want to be a secretary, I believed him because my mother had always told me I was stupid and ugly.
I joined in July 1987. While everyone else was crying, complaining and quitting in bootcamp, I was overjoyed and felt that my prayers had been answered. Boot camp was the first time I had ever had three square meals, where I knew what to expect and where I had a routine. I knew they couldn’t hit me and nothing they could say to me was worse than my mother’s criticism. I was the soloist for the entire training group’s graduation and received a meritorious promotion from boot camp.
I completed school in Meridian, Mississippi and received orders back to Orlando, Florida, where I had just completed boot camp. I was upset that I didn’t get sent to a ship or somewhere far away because I had nothing to lose. God’s plan turned out to be the best thing for me. My first boss was an amazing civilian woman in the student control office. She taught me to stand up for myself, carry myself with pride and dignity and that although I certainly was not ugly, I was still a lady and didn’t have to put up with anyone trying to harass me, enlisted or officer.
I became a super star under her guidance. The command created awards and I was the first female in the history of the command for many of my accomplishments. My boss’s family adopted me and I call that now 83-year-old “Mom” to this day and her four children love me unconditionally!
At one point, I went to the career counselor’s office and told him that I was bored, but only qualified to be a yeoman. I wanted something challenging. He looked at my ASVAB scores and said that I could be anything I wanted except a nuke or seal because those were for males only. I asked what the most difficult school was and he said electrician. I knew aviation was the elite part of the Navy and decided on aviation electrician.
I completed the fast paced course in six months in Memphis, Tennessee as the class leader and was given my choice of orders. Since I was a single parent of a two-year-old, I elected for isolated duty at the Pacific Missile Range in Kauai, Hawaii, which counted as sea duty, but I was allowed to take my daughter with me.
I was the only female aviation electrician working in a shop of eight guys. Because my aircraft was the H-3, most of the guys in maintenance were search and rescue air crewmen. This left me to do most of the maintenance since they had to have down time after flights. I had to learn every system on the aircraft because it was all attached to a wire somewhere! During those three years I lost my home in a category five hurricane and two close friends to drinking and driving – proving to myself that I could endure anything.
I transferred to Great Lakes, Illinois in 1994 to be an aviation apprenticeship instructor in boot camp. Within six months of transferring, I became ill. Although I never had these symptoms and issues before and my blood work had several anomalies, the Navy doctors would not acknowledge the illness that was consuming me. They sent me to a psychiatrist instead.
I was a single parent carrying a full-time college course load, working full time and had overnight duty every four days. I was told that I had Lupus after suffering through mononucleosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Lyme Disease. My supervisor denied the doctor’s order to put me on convalescent leave to heal.
Only after I paid out of pocket to get a civilian doctor’s second opinion on the diagnosis of Lupus did I find out that there were many people in the Great Lakes area who had the same mystery illness. There was a nuclear power plant in the area and two pharmaceutical companies close to the water. The VA Hospital right outside the base contacted me and said that they were doing a pilot study on the active duty service members in the area and would evaluate me while I was in the Navy.
The VA said they were awarding many sailors disability, although the Navy didn’t acknowledge my medical issues and would not consider a medical discharge. I was honorably discharged and moved my daughter to Jacksonville, Florida because my best friend from Hawaii lived there. I served 10 years and at the end of my obligated service, had finished my Bachelor’s degree.
The transition to civilian life was very scary for me as a single parent because the military provided food, shelter, life insurance, clothing and medical and dental care for me and my daughter. As a disabled veteran, my medical and dental needs were covered, but because I did not receive child support, the burden to provide for my daughter was on my shoulders.
My best friend let us stay at her house for six months, until I got back on my feet. I found that working with civilians was difficult in the sense that accountability and initiative was rare, as was the leadership. The best part about working in the civilian sector was that it was easy to outshine my peers with accelerated learning, efficiency and creating solutions to resolve issues. The key to blending was not to charge ahead of everyone, but to sublimely convince everyone that we were a strong team versus the solo approach most have. I learned all of these skills in the military. Although I had to learn to soften my direct communication, my biggest obstacle was the paradigm of civilians in my mind.
I was able to rise above the challenges over the years by always having a professional mentor to guide me – usually someone who had already made a successful transition from the military to civilian life. I surrounded myself with positive female role models and championed other women to achieve their goals.
I learned to manage my autoimmune illness holistically after several years of trial and error with a VA clinic that treated my symptoms instead of finding the cause. My disability has never held me back in the civilian world because the Navy taught me to adapt and overcome. I have worked as a computer instructor, executive assistant, project manager and independent consultant.
Serving 10 years in the Navy is a beacon of pride in my heart. Yes, even more than being from Texas! I wouldn’t trade my military service for anything because it has given me strength to mentor others from tragic beginnings. I have forged so many friendships with people who would do anything for me to this day. The military brothers and sisters are my family and it’s a comforting kinship to know that wherever I may roam, I am never alone.