Salute to Service: Both Sides of the Camera

Devin's Masterpiece
Devin’s Masterpiece

Everyone,

Thank you for the long delay since my last post.  I did not envision it would be a month long wait, but life–as always–creeps in at funny moments. Last month, I was fortunate to be photographed for the Veteran Vision Project and the image is what you see above. I will do my best to speak further on this wonderful experience this week, but for now, I recommend you check out ASU’s reporting on the Veteran Vision Project and Salute to Service. My daughter and I are even featured in the “Salute to Service” video.

In touching base on my extended absence, in the last few years, October has become a busier month for me and each year, those responsibilities seem to multiply.  This year, I attended the NAVPA (National Association of Veterans’ Program Administrators) Conference in Nashville, Tennessee.  As most of you know, my day-to-day responsibilities as a School Certifying Official entails spending a significant amount of time processing students’ GI Bill® benefits.  Given our increasing student population, I am discovering more and more I get to play a part advocating on students’ behalf.  The NAVPA Conference was my opportunity to learn about the advocating that occurs at the public policy level and network with other School Certifying Officials. As well, I learned about potential changes coming in the future.

On top of this wonderful professional opportunity, today I participated on a panel discussion with three other female veterans.  Each of us served in either Iraq or Afghanistan and we talked about key issues such as reintegration challenges, feelings about military service, and how our lives have changed upon separation from our respective service branches.  This panel was a further extension of a panel I participated in as part of the Women of Courage class taught by Dr. Rose Weitz this spring.  I am very honored Dr. Weitz asked again if I would participate in such a collaboration and this time, the panel occurred outside the classroom and was live streamed for our online student population.  As someone more comfortable behind the scenes, I am learning more and more how important it is at times to be visible publicly, especially given the level of “invisibility” surrounding women veterans.

Talking today about the sexual harassment I experienced during my active duty time was  part of revealing to the audience those invisible issues one sometimes encounters.  In fact, much of this behavior was very visible to members of my peer group and instigated by fellow coworkers.  I want to be very forward in saying none of my leaders made degrading comments about my person (body type, sexuality, etc.) but I also did not feel comfortable sharing with them, back then, how those comments/assumptions/derogatory remarks made me feel.  There were things that came up to my leaders’ attention but as the sole woman at my unit, I did not want to discuss these matters especially in such a hierarchal setting.

As a veteran now, I understand I have greater liberty to engage in vertical and horizontal forms of communication whereas during much of my service conversations happened vertically given the chain of command structure. My voice can be heard more equally now that I don’t fear peers will ostracize me for calling them out for their poor behavior.  I was not willing to discuss one such matter on videotape today but I talked to Dr. Weitz earlier this year about a particularly challenging experience I dealt with during a relationship where I felt there was no good solution to what occurred.

The person I dated back then had left our hotel room door unlocked and invited his friends over, without my permission.  I was absolutely horrified when these two Marines came over into what should have been our shared private space and I had a bare minimum amount of fabric covering my body.  The fact a man I trusted violated my privacy as a human and more importantly as his partner has certainly left a lifelong impact.  I would not call the situation sexual trauma because I do not feel the situation is the same as being raped, but it is most certainly one of the most disheartening examples of sexual harassment.  As well, everyone involved was a Marine and given the poor rapport I had with the leadership where I was at, I did not feel comfortable either talking to someone about the situation.

When I discussed today the impact sexual harassment has on body image, this instance is one of the examples that comes to mind.  Although I enjoyed being a modest person before this instance, I am certainly more insistent now on being modest in my appearance.  Other women who’ve dealt with sexual harassment may feel the same way; honestly, I’ve never asked.  Once again though, my response is not to speak on behalf of all women, nor all women in the military. It is egregious though in so many ways that society teaches men that women’s bodies are for their enjoyment and that any pain they may cause is negligible (or nonexistent).

Today was nice though; it was a reminder this situation, like some others, is part of my past but I always have the power to shape my future. Today, I enjoyed the opportunity to talk about my combat deployments and listen to my peers share their stories. Sharing my personal grief was but a small portion of the talk.

Mostly, I wanted the audience to see I am a success story because I served my country. There are (and will likely always be) tangible rewards for military service. I am fortunate to enjoy the fruits of my commitment and the efforts of my fellow veterans and veteran organizations who labor to keep those rewards available for future generations to come.

Respectfully,
Cheryl