I feel that on Valentine's Day, what better than to write a love letter to yourself right?
In March 2016, I attended Women Veteran's Alliance (WVA) first ever Unconference. I took a 60 minute breakout workshop facilitated by Kathleen Taylor with Veteran Women's Voices. I did not know any of the ladies in this workshop. We were all veterans of the Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, Army, and Air Force, ages ranging from 20-60. Prior to connecting with WVA, I had actually disconnected from most anything veteran related for about 20 years. We all sat quietly listening to how the process worked. We were given the prompt to "write a love letter to yourself" and 10 minutes to pen this letter. No pressure, LOL. As we started, I could see the looks on other faces as we all tried to imagine how on earth to write a love letter to ourselves. I attempted to write a love letter to my 18 year old self. The 18 year old that was signing up for the Delayed Enlistment Program (DEP), and would soon be enlisted in the US Navy, under the control of the U.S Government, for the next 8 years.
I'll digress for a couple of paragraphs to give a little bit of background. I joined and served in the Navy from 1989 - 1996, a combination of Active duty until 1993 and Reserves. I was honorably discharged from active duty in the mid nineties, a time when the technology of the internet was just about to boom. During my years on isolated duty and on a ship deployed at sea for six months out of each year, there was very little communication with the outside world. We had access to payphones, but calling thousands of miles away racked up alot of bills. We could buy prepaid phone cards, but were charged many dollars per minute, so the fees added up quickly. We had access to U.S. Mail, but letters could take weeks or months to reach our loved ones. Mail call was literally the highlight of our day or week or month. During Desert Shield and Desert Storm, many people could send free letters. You could just write a letter and as long as it had a military APO or FPO destination, you could write FREE on the stamp area, drop it into any US Mailbox and were even able to keep in touch with those that were deployed to the front lines or support teams in the Persian Gulf.
In 1992, I was deployed to the Mediterranean Sea on my ship the USS Sierra AD18, a destroyer tender. This coming shortly after the Desert Storm campaign.
I got called into my Chief's office and he handed me a radio communication teletype from the Red Cross notifying me that my dad's mother, my grandmother Mcdonald, had died. As I read it, I felt so isolated and far away from my family. My Chief said that it may not be easy, but a ship in our battle group could potentially send a helicopter to airlift me from our flight deck, and then make arrangements to get me to a nearby land base in Spain where I could them make arrangements, at my own cost, to make the long trek to California for the funeral service. I had to be realistic though. I was young, I was scared and nervous to think I would be navigating this by myself in a foreign country. I was nervous that everyone on the ship would have to redirect their duties, to allow me to catch an air flight out. Oh, and the long trip home, and then how on earth would I get back to my ship? I knew that wasn't figured out and nothing is easy with the military. They would probably place me on a shore duty station in Charleston until my ship returned, which could be six months. So many unknowns. Many ships were already getting their deployments extended due to heightened security in the Med, the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf as Saddam Hussein was still alive. All of this was hard for me to swallow, so I made a decision to stay with my ship, to finish out my deployment and stay with my Navy family during these times of missing my other family.
So, as I sat down to write my love letter to myself, I had a hard time getting started. I just thought about what would I say to that young girl who was full of sarcasm and independence about to embark on a journey with the military, with little clue what it would actually be like. I sat there for a couple of minutes and had no clue what to say, so here goes: Dear Joleen, You made a decision to join the Navy (because your grandpa Louis was in the Navy), and you wanted out of your small town. I think you really don't have the maturity, or capacity, at this young age, to quite understand what this all means. I happen to know that you will not fully grasp what it means, and the pride to serve your country until you are discharged and out for atleast 20 years. Once you get out, you will have a tough time adjusting to civilian life (even though others around you might think you are doing just fine). You will not feel recognized for your true worth or sacrifice, atleast not in your eyes. When people meet you and find out you served in the military, they will have a hard time believing you because you don't look like a veteran. What does a female veteran look like? Your family and friends are so proud of you and the choice you made. Rather than go on to college or a job, hanging out with your pals, starting families, you will be under the control of the US Navy. You will have to do many things under direct orders that will go against your personal beliefs and stubborn attitude. Your sarcasm will put you in sticky situations. You will deal with many old school men who believe women shouldn't serve, but will have sex with you in a heartbeat because you were one of 150 women on a ship of 1100. BUT, you are strong and you will speak your mind, and you will get to travel the world. Not only will you get to get drunk in many countries, you will have the opportunity to actually appreciate the wonders of other cultures, architecture, and people (although you will choose to drink and party more than sightsee). I encourage you to see the world, not just drink it. You will joke that you carried your liver back to the U.S. in a ziplock baggy. You will not get to travel abroad again until you are close to 50 years old and you will fondly remember all those opportunities to travel when you were young and wish you had made more of the opportunities. 20+ years later, you will seek out the camaraderie of other women veterans because they are the only ones who truly know what your experience was like. I am very proud of your decision, it is a part of who you will become and will serve as a very integral part of your being, whether you believe it or not. Please remember that you only need to love yourself, and don't pay attention to the haters or disbelievers, because you know your true worth. xoxo Jo
I am not sure if we knew that these might be read aloud or shared. I certainly wasn't prepared to share mine because I didn't realize that putting those simple words onto paper would be so emotional. As I was writing, I started crying, and I had no Kleenex, so I had to grab one of my daughter's socks from my purse and shove it up my nostril. I heard a few sniffles in the room. A fellow female veteran decided to read hers first, and as she started to read, she broke down in tears. Well, I started crying too. But she composed herself the best she could and kept reading, and crying. This happened all the way around the room. Not one of us knew how this would deeply affect us and bring years of feelings to the forefront. I left with sore eyes, and a huge weight lifted from me. I want to do it again! AND I DID!
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