A Christmas Alone

Two or three weeks after returning from Fallon, our command detached on the USS Roosevelt to begin our shipboard training for cruise. During this time we were told that in the two weeks we had off after the training excercise we would be given a short leave and opportunity to go home within reason before we would possibly deploy early in support of Opporation Iraqi Freedom. My roommates had already left for their deployment and I drove myself to the shipyard after cramming myself full of my favorite local Chinese food.

Our three weeks out flew by for the most part, and I signed up to take the last leave period since I had no children I wanted to see wake up on Christmas morning. I knew it would be lonely being my first Christmas away from my family, but looked forward to my week I would have with them shortly thereafter. It was strange with half of the command gone at one time and the nights at home were even lonlier. As Christmas Eve approached I had no plans and was assigned duty but no watch for Christmas Day. I drank myself to sleep on the couch in front of the tv and woke up to “A Christmas Story” playing for the annual twenty four hour marathon I always demanded we keep on until​ someone else finally fought back. This year there was no one to fight with though, just me. 

I knew my family was together, waiting on me to get home to celebrate, but also enjoying my mother’s home cooked meals I treasured because nothing in our small town was open on Christmas Day. A light snow began to fall, and I watched it out of our third floor window as it covered the walkway with a glittering mist. Although I had duty, I decided to start drinking anyhow as I figured it would be my only hope at getting any sleep that night as well. About four or so that afternoon a friend called and asked me what my plans for the evening where. I responded I was staying in. He did not give me that option.

He was at my house within thirty minutes and taking me to eat with two other mutual friends in Richmond. When I arrived I was nervous but I enjoyed our evening together and was thankful that I was not completely alone for Christmas. We cooked lamb and other side dishes and drank and played with pet rats. I learned that Christmas that family is who you make your family. From that date on, every holiday I did not return home for leave, which was often, I would prepare a meal for anyone that wanted to join us for the evening.

It became a tradition we all loved and looked forward to. I would prepare the traditional dishes my family taught me to make and others would bring their favorites. Usually someone bought a turkey for me to prepare, and always a keg of beer. I would cook for three days getting our masterpiece ready and then we would enjoy our weekend eating as much as possible. We always took the watch plates of food at the command, and tried to include as many as we could feed or fit into the house. 

While we had our ups and downs at the command during our time, we really did bond as a family. The connection I still have with many of the former shipmates I was stationed with will never be broken, we will always have each other’s backs and help or be there for them in any way possible. For so long I was afraid to be me around my former service member friends, but the more I am myself the more support I get from them.  They​ encourage me to be a better person and friend and I will be forever grateful for the time I had with them and the relationships we still have today.

Memories of the Desert

Although I had been raped twice in Fallon, I did have realitively good times in the dessert; or as good as they could be. My first detachment I spent most of my time working with my shop until I was caught in a shipmates room attempting to avoid the sex acts taking place in my own. I was only twenty and mostly stuck around to those I knew decently but I left base every chance I got. 

I went shopping in Reno, ate the casino buffets, went skinny dipping in Lake Tahoe and then rode around the entire lake with our van door open to dry our clothes before going back to base, and watched a friend fly a kite over the shores while we picked fresh sage to take back to our homes. I marveled at the scenery and majestic landscape the dessert provided. One day, as was customary for many sailors to do, we decided we wanted to visit the local brothel.

I had been sent on a mission by a roomate to get a menu, and I had every intention of fullfilling it. I was the designated driver since I was underage, and the only female. We drove to the outskirts of town and finally arrived at the front of a trailer park. Right off the side of the road stood the famous Bunny Ranch. I immediately parked the van in front of the entrance and we hastily made our way inside to get my elusive menu.

I made it about two feet into the door when a very obese woman in a blue bra with the most enormous breasts I had ever seen called out to us. I quickly realized she was calling out to me, asking me if I had a permit to be inside a brothel. Baffled and embarrassed I stammered I didn’t as my face became a bright cherry red inferno. I shrugged my shoulders and said I would be making sand castles out by the van until my shipmates were finished. 

Defeated, I left the brothel, but was quickly greeted by my shipmates who also wanted to return to town. We decided to stop at our favorite local stop, the birdfarm, and finished off our night badly singing to the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughn and figuring out how a silver dollar would go in the juke box. I attempted to play darts but struck a local man in the head and quickly surrendered in exchange for remaining in the bar until close.

We cooked on the grills outside the barracks and played spades and other games to pass the time. The base had a go cart track and small cafe and bar to spend time in. I believe there was a bowling alley as well. The second detachment we finally convinced master chief to give us the van one day to go for an adventure. We all wanted to go somewhere different so we went to Tahoe for the obvious, Sacramento to see the capital, San Francisco to eat in China Town and cross the Golden Gate Bridge, and Reno for late night casino dinner all in our one day off. 

While people were wild and crazy and bad things did happen, it was a time of bonding for me and many of my shipmates. We learned to have loyalty and respect for one another that continued to grow the more time we spent on the ship after we left the dessert. We bonded over dessert buggers, pigs in space, the insane things you only do if you are in the military, the close quarters of sweaty kitty litter covered techs farting bad grilled food, and the never ending inside jokes that would follow us for years. As our final jets took off and the remaining Skelton crew members boarded our flight to head back to Virginia I watched the setting sun go down on both a place I learned from tremendously​ but also as a place I knew I never wanted to return to.

Hello, Goodbye

After leaving Andy in Massachusetts my heart and soul felt empty. I drank heavily and worked or slept to forget the pain of being separated; no one had loved me the way he did. We talked daily but his depression worsened mine and we began to bicker over my drinking. About two weeks or so after he left I realized that I had not gotten my period. I fled to the mini NEX on base in a panic. I bought a pregnancy test and immediately peed on the stick.

As the results began to appear and I had never been more frightened in all my life. I was pregnant. I knew master chief would blow his top and I’d be a good for nothing deployment dodger. I returned to my room and laid on my rack and cried. I had always wanted to be a mom, Andy was the first man I had loved that loved me back for who I was. But in the back of my mind I struggled with my commitment I had made to the Navy and my squadron mates, supporting the upcoming war that was inevitable, and honoring my contract. I kept my secret to myself, aside from Andy of course, until we could figure out what to do next.

I knew my command was deploying and the baby would be due before deployment and I would return to sea duty six weeks after its birth. We could have gotten married, and he would be able to return to Virginia to live and raise our child, but that was not an option because Andy did not drive at the time. I continued working but I stopped drinking. It honestly did not make any difference though because within a week or so of me finding out I was pregnant, I had a miscarriage.

I sunk into a horrible depression and blamed myself for drinking and not eating and smoking before I found out that I was with child. Andy was devestated, as I was. The next few months we began to fight more often and I drank far more than I ever had. By the time he turned 21 in August I decided to break up with him. I was getting ready to go on detachments to Fallon, NV and then the ship for the next year or so and I would have no phone and little access to email. I thought I was doing him and me a favor so he would not have to be so lonely while I was away.

He became suicidal and constantly talked or discussed those thoughts with me. I became overwhelmed with the stress of the relationship and did not talk to him much at all when I was on detachment. We found out a good friend of ours died back in Arkansas from a random call I got from Jon one day, and that was the last I really remember talking to him until after I returned from cruise the following year other than letters he sent me while out to sea.

I knew I still loved him, but I also knew I could not be there for him the way he needed me to be at that time. We were both miserable apart, but I often wonder had things been different would we still be together today? Would we have our beautiful children we were so lucky to conceive at a later date? I recently discussed how my PTSD kept me from feeling elated when I found out Andy and I were going to have a child later in life and how frustrated I was to not be able to have those feelings most new moms get to experience. 

I thought, perhaps my loss of our first child that I never really was allowed to grieve and the guilt I felt for harming it as it developed kept me from fully experiencing the joy of having two gorgeous children years later. I love my children more than life or anything it has to offer, they by far are my greatest gifts I’ve ever had, but I have trouble expressing emotion with them from time to time and it’s beyond frustrating. I hope with this realization I finally put my guilt aside and know that the best gift I can give to my first unborn child is to treat their brother and sister the best I possibly can and give them all of the love and emotions I want.

If I had never gotten pregnant the first time and lost our child, the bond between Andy and myself could have been permanently broken. Perhaps that bond is what lead us back together and gave us both the life we desired to spend with one another in the end. I do not always believe things happen for a reason, but I think I can finally burry some of the guilt I harbor over our first child. Afterall, there are two siblings that deserve the same love and respect I’ve held inside me for so long; I forgive myself and I am thankful for my past, my present, and all of the lessons I have learned, especially the negatives.

A Valentine’s Gift

Not long after my arrival at my duty station in Virginia Beach, I got word from Andy that he bought a bus ticket to move from Arkansas to live with me. I began to panic knowing that I was not a high enough rank to move off base but I was estatic for him to come out. He was slated to arrive the Saturday after Valentine’s day to start our life together.

In the few weeks since my arrival I had mostly been working and when I was off, drinking and playing cards with friends. I had distanced myself from my A-school friends after Stephanie’s rape and mostly stuck with people from my own command. I made friends realitively easily and enjoyed spending time with them off base. We discovered a Purple Cow, one of my favorite places in Arkansas to get purple shakes, hit up Rick’s cafe for dinner when we got off work early in the mornings, and other local favorites.

The day finally arrived for Andy to leave and I was met with a mixture of excitement and anxiety, I still had no idea where we would live. I asked a friend how to get the bus station and made my way to get my love. I was not used to access roads in the area and when I got off the main road to enter the access road my left front tire hit the curb and immediately went flat as I entered the parking lot of the bus station.

Humiliated, I quickly gave Andy a hug and then proceeded to start changing my tire as he had never driven or owned a car. I got the spare on and we made our way to find a room for the night. We found a cheap hotel and checked in for the evening but I knew I would not be able to afford hotels every night on my lowly E-3 salary so the next day we set out apartment hunting. We were quickly discouraged to find even the cheapest apartment we could find would not rent to us on my salary.

I knew it would be hard for Andy to find employment I could easily get him to and from with my work schedule. He attempted to look for work, but we honestly did not put tons of effort into it. After a few weeks, Andy had finally landed a job at the base McDonald’s. He lasted about a day and gave up after no training was provided. I was running out of funds to stay in hotels and had began sneaking him onto base to stay in my room when I was at work and then him letting me in when I returned.

We began to argue over his lack of employment and our unsuccessful apartment hunting. One morning I had to report to work early for a safety stand down. I left Andy in my barracks room and reported to muster at my command. Upon completion of training I returned to the command for work for the evening. That night we were supposed to stay at my friend’s home off base and my buddy went to pick Andy up before I got off work. When he arrived at my room a note was hanging on the door.

My buddy grabbed the note and then entered my room with my the aid of my roommate. Andy was not in my private half of the room. My friend returned to work to give me the note and to tell me the news. Once he gave it to me all it said was that I needed to report to the Barracks Petty Officer ASAP as my heart sank in my chest. We had been caught! I started to panic as I thought of my master chief finding out and already saw the disapproval on my superiors faces.

I left work and went down to the beach to one of the last hotels we stayed in hoping to find Andy because he didn’t have a cell phone. I drove from hotel to hotel and finally found him. I knew our time was drawing to a close and we plotted our next move. Sadly the only option was to take him to Massachusetts to live with his parents until I could move off base.

We spent our last night together and the following day, after I was released from work, we drove to Massachusetts. We drove throughout the night and arrived sometime the next afternoon at his parents apartment; a one bedroom. We were there maybe twenty minutes before his dad whisked us away in his car and towards Boston to visit some friends. I was amazed by the sights of the city and instantly fell in love with the people and sounds of their accents.

Once we arrived at Andy’s father’s friends home, I almost immediately fell asleep. I couldn’t hold my eyes open anymore and after what seemed like forever, we finally headed back to their apartment. It was good to see Lura, Andy’s mom, and to see that he at least had a roof over his head while I would be away on my upcoming deployment. We spent our last evening in each other’s arms snuggled on the tiny couch that would become his bed. 

We woke the next day and spent as much time as we could with one another before I had to head back to Virginia to get back to work. I had already snuck away to Massachusetts for the weekend to take him there and would be cutting a thin line when I returned for having an unsupervised visitor in my barracks room. We ate a final meal together and said a tearful goodbye outside his parents apartment.

The drive seemed so long without Andy and I could not wait to climb into my rack and sleep. I drove for hours throughout the night as I counted down the states by the boarders I passed. I accidentally ran through a toll booth in Delaware, but was unaware at the time a ticket would be mailed to my step father. I finally made it back to base with no other incidents and crashed into my rack upon entry of the door to my room to catch a few hours sleep before had to muster for my shift on night check. I was not aware then, but Andy had given me an unexpected Valentine’s gift the night of his arrival and it had just began to make its presence known.

If Only I Had Been A Male…

Today I had the conversation about females versus male in the military with a friend. I do not really remember how the conversation came up but the thoughts it left me with are really the important part. I left high school an honor graduate and received a state funded scholarship to the only school in the state with a criminology program, which I was determined to study. My first choice had been at a school in Maryland, but my mother persuaded me to use the state scholarship first.

I hated my first school, the only good that came from it was meeting Andy through my roommate. My grades suffered and my Mom and step-dad ultimately decided if I did not want to return to Arkansas State that I could go with my mother to her school each week; a tiny community college in Wesson, MS. Unable to protest too loudly, and after being shut down at transferring to University of Arkansas in Little Rock, I begrudgingly decided for the later option.

Although I was making good grades and taking enough hours to make up for my first semester, I was still unhappy. Mid semester I decided to join the Navy upon completion of my current semester. I began reading all I could about my selected service branch and trying to get in physical shape for boot camp. I was excited to start my new life and to move on from what I perceived as my future in demise by staying in Crossett. I finished the semester with all A’s and a C; my parents were proud.

I headed to boot camp in June of 2001 and upon arrival I was asked an assortment of questions about my past. I answered yes to having been in band and thus was placed in a performing units division; 939. Although I had not played my saxophone for a year I managed to squeak through a badly performed site reading tryout and was then sent to tryout for the drill unit. I had done flag in band in junior high and this was a natural fit for me; I was twirling the riffle.

We practiced daily on our routines and I proved to be a great team member, our instructor was impressed with my marching and sharpness. I made it through boot camp with very few problems and because half our unit was male and other female, and we were pretty much all treated as equals. Once we graduated and moved on to our A-school for technical training of our jobs, I became the only female in my class. There was one berthing on base for all of the females compared to eight or more all male barracks.

Although my physical abilities differed from the male sailors and Marines in my class, my intellectual abilities remained consistent. I was still treated fairly, my questions were answered to the best of others ability, I was able to get to participate in after class tutoring sessions when needed and life on base was almost the same as living on a college campus with far more rules. I had my car and I often vacated the base as often as possible to escape to my beautiful Santa Rosa Island. 

After graduating from school and getting my orders to my first command I still felt fairly confident in my abilities to compete fairly with my male counterparts but that was quickly short lived. I was able to obtain many qualifications and a high security clearance because I had little negatives in my past history and doing what was expected of me was something I had always been taught. The further I went along though, the more obvious it became that my title as female greatly affected my abilities for advancement.

In my command girls were considered to be troublesome and we had a maintenance master chief that believed that females did not belong in his Navy; and god did he love to remind us! If a female became pregnant they were a deployment dodger, if a female claimed rape they were a whore, slut, good for nothing cum dumpsters, and completely shunned by the other members of the command; even most of the people they considered to be their family.

This was one of the main reasons I never reported my rapes, I just held them in and blamed myself for drinking and putting myself in the situations in the first place. As we progressed and began to get ready for deployment I continued to get my qualifications and to work hard to prove my worth to my superiors. When evaluations came around I was usually one of the lower ranked among my peers in my shop. It always confused me how those that did so much less work and had so many less qualifications could out perform me on our evaluations but I can not remember a single time where it did not happen.

The longer I stayed in my command and whitnessed injustices to myself and others I began to become disillusioned by the Navy. After deployment I put on third class petty officer and began to train to become a final checker and troubleshooter. I spent many long hours on the flight line preparing for this but upon time for my final approval with our maintenance master chief, I was instead given an impromptu board with him and the officers that were in maintenance control. I was humiliated when he clearly began asking me questions that had nothing to do with troubleshooting or my specialty at all. 

Shortly thereafter my command and shop supervisor decided to send me to corrosion control; but they wanted me to work the flight schedule as my rate, an aviation electronic technician, and then work a completely different workload after flight schedule in corrosion control. I was deeply hurt and felt completely disposable at that point. I tried to crossrate and was denied so I ultimately decided I was as unwanted in the Navy and began obsessively counting down my dates until my end of service obligation date.

Flight schedules, spare papers, scraps; none were safe from the countless numbers scribbled on them and dots that repetitively tapped each number as I counted the days down. I still find them in remnants of Navy paraphernalia that litter my house. I tried so hard to be a good sailor but I was never awarded anything more than what most in the Navy referred to as a toilet paper award, good enough to wipe your ass on the paper it’s printed on but not much else. My self esteem and self worth were at an all time low and I felt that no matter what I did in life I was never good enough.

Not good enough for many of my peers to respect me, my superiors to advance me, and most importantly not important enough to be respected and loved. All I had ever wanted in my life was for someone to love me for the person I was. I had found it once but at this point in my life, had pushed him into the arms of another woman because of my own insecurity. My depression was more than obvious and sometime after my rapist was kicked out of the Navy I just stopped caring.

I stopped getting anything other that required qualifications, I refused to work on earning my warfare pins, I stopped pushing myself to stay in good physical shape, and I gave up. I just attempted to exist until my separation. I worked, drank, and slept. I had a relationship with a man in my command, but I now know I loved him as a friend. He simply kept me safe and alive throughout the remainder of my time in my command. I never would have made it out alive if it had not been for him and a few other very close squadron mates.

I believed this was the darkest time of my life, but I would soon find out I was sorely mistaken. I believed life would be wonderful as soon as I was able to get out of the Navy. My first job hunting experience failed miserably and I ended up getting a front desk job at a seedy hotel down by the oceanfront making minimum wage. My ego was bruised but I took the job and I did my very best at it. Towards the end of the summer I abruptly stopped this job after a boss ran his hand up my legs and shorts while his wife and children were in the next room. It took a month or so to find employment in my new town and I began donating plasma for survival.

My live in roommate became extremely emotionally abusive towards me during this time and after blaming me for getting raped by a co-worker at my newest job, I fled the state for good. I arrived in Arkansas in a state of shock and proceeded to score another minimum wage cooking gig at a steakhouse. After my first few weeks I quickly realized I still did not make enough to cover bills at my new place. In a panic, I began to look for a new roommate and thus began another relationship.

Again, this relationship sprung out of survival, and the hurt I caused this man was not at all acceptable. I became reunited with Andy during this time and eventually moved into his home in Massachusetts, thankfully ending my need to be in a relationship for survival or fitting the technical definition of a very blessed homeless veteran. I continued to battle my demons I had incurred during and out of the military by drinking them away and my relationship with Andy began to suffer; I recently found out he was very close to leaving me at this time of our lives. 

After I was diagnosed with PTSD and began therapy I started to feel less like hiding and more like reaching out to former Navy and military personnel I had avoided for years. I became reunited with a squadron mate that came to the command at the same time as I did, we were even the same rank! I was surprised and overjoyed to find out he had put on Chief and was still proudly serving in the Navy. We began taking and one day he decided to ask me about a night I had been trying to forget since 2002.

One night while we were in Fallon, NV on a det I was incredibly intoxicated and out with friends from the command. Upon arrival to base I did not want to return to my room because my roommate often had men in there as well as other disturbing items I did not like to see. I opted to go to the room of my squadron mate, and realized that his roommate was still awake when we arrived. My chief friend was the roomate. After the lights went out our comrade began rubbing me and trying to penetrate my vagina. I said no in a hushed voice as to not wake up our sleeping co-worker, but he didn’t.

The next morning, it was joked about as if everything had been consensual. I brushed it off, embarrassed and horribly ashamed that my peer believed I was sleeping with people and acting irresponsibly, and more so that he believed it was consensual. This night though, through Facebook messenger, he was asking me to tell him the truth. He asked me if the events that took place in that room that night had been consensual.

For the first time since it happened I admitted that it was not, in 2016 fourteen years after the initial incident even took place. I’ve never even put it in my disability claim because I was fearful that he had believed it was consensual. He promised he was sorry and that we would talk about it, but he never called and we never did. The one thing he did say that night that has remained with me though was that he said he was sick of loosing good sailors for bullshit that happens in the military beyond their control, as no one can rape but a rapist.

It was profound to me that since I left the command a broken frail shadow of the person that entered it and he was a thriving successful career military chief. It made me wonder if I had stayed in, what I may be today. This man had been convicted of arson when we were at our first duty station and my largest sin was failing my physical readiness test after I decided giving up was easier than pretending to be strong. The differences our lives had taken struck me deeply.

He had prospered and been allowed to move above his transgressions while I was stagnated in every possible way, give or take a few supervisors that refused not to have my back. I got out and was only able to find minimum wage jobs in each state I lived in after the Navy. I was technically homeless for the two or three years before I relocated to Massachusetts to be with Andy. I was slapped with a government overpayment through the MGIB and had to sit out of school for two years while my credit was ruined. I self medicated to the point of getting a DWI and finally waking up enough to try to get my life straight. 

At 34 I have obtained my master’s degree, and I have a family that keeps me going, a nice home, a husband that cares for and loves me deeply, and yet I still feel like a failure at providing while my friend is living the life he always dreamed. It does make me wonder had I been a male in the military, would my experience have been much different? I would assume it would, not better or worse per say, but absolutely different. I do not regret my decision to join or leave the military, but I will probably always dream about what I could have been had I not been a female in a male dominated world. 

I Bought A Bus Ticket

Not long after my arrival in Virginia and I took my place on night check, Andy called me with the news that he had bought a bus ticket and would be arriving shortly after Valentine’s Day. I immediately began to panic as I was not a high enough rank to live off base. Andy did not drive or have a vehicle and me getting him to and from work feasibily highly limited his employment options. 

The weeks that lead to his arrival caused my anxiety to continue to raise over where we would live, but I was otherwise estatic over his arrival. I seemed to be settling into my new position on night check fairly well and had just gotten the routine down when my supervisor told me at shift change the following Monday I would be checking into FRAMP school, which was located in a small hanger across the parking lot from my command. I was perterved at having to change my schedule back to day time hours but I was excited to gain new skills to enhance my career, and I wanted to make my command proud.

The following Monday I reported to FRAMP as instructed and reported to my assigned classroom. Our instructors introduced themselves and I was informed the first class in charge would shortly become my new lead petty officer of our shop after my class graduated; I had to make a good impression. We were divided into new duty sections and given a breakdown of our instruction over the next several months. Some of the topics seemed interesting, but most were very dry. I left that first afternoon semi happy to be on a school schedule but missed my night check buddies.

I quickly made friends with others in my class and we began spending time together out of class. We decided to go camping one weekend so I bought camping supplies and off we went. Many adventures were had during this time and I was relieved to have a distraction until Andy arrived. We went kayaking across the Bay, hiking the Blue Ridge Mountains, camping at Crabtree falls, going to the gun range, or spending time in our favorite local pubs and breweries. Andy did not usually seem to mind my trips and I loved being off base. 

I was doing well in my courses and time was drawing closer for Andy to board his bus when I got a call from my former college roommate, the one that introduced me to Andy. She was in town visiting her dad and wanted to get together. I of course responded that I would pick her up after class that afternoon. I could not wait to see an old friend and I was eager for class to let out so I could go get her.

When I arrived at a nice upper middle class neighborhood in Virginia Beach to pick her up I quickly realized why she had so much animosity toward her father. Her mother’s home was a small townhome and nothing special. She came running from the house and jumped in my car excitedly. We began to catch up as I drove towards a friend’s home; to secure alcohol as we were both 19.

Her favorite drink was always tequila and I never had any luck with it. Reluctantly she talked me into drinking some with her for old times sake and eventually Andy called to check in. He was not thrilled about my company or the fact that I was near black out drunk at another males home. We began to argue and my friend tried to grab the phone to speak with Andy. When she did, I tripped and my foot remained under the couch I was standing next to. I went flying face first down the hallway and got carpet burn all over my face and arms.

I had no idea how bad my injuries looked until the next morning when I woke up still intoxicated and had to drive to base for school. I arrived to class reeking of alcohol and my future LPO shot me a disgusted glance. He asked me what happened and I stammered, “Roller blading accident, Petty Officer,” as my cheeks burned under my scabed and swollen face. He clinched his teeth tightly and said, “Go home, airman!” I looked at him shocked and in horror. I knew I had messed up but I had not meant to make my future supervisor disappointed or angry enough to send me home.

I vowed to become a better student and gain back his respect over the next several weeks. It was fairly easy to do, I thought, but sometimes first impressions are for good. I did not know it then, but I had tarnished myself in his eyes before he ever became my supervisor. It would ultimately become a large part of the reason I did not re-enlist and it absolutely stagnated my naval career.

Never Surrender

As a child we often vacationed on Pensacola Beach and usually spent part of the time camping at the national park located at the western side of the island. Many days and nights were spent running up and down the shoreline on both the harbor side and gulf side of the island. We did the gulf side during the day and at night typically walked harbor side to Ft. Pickens to sit on the old stone wall surrounding it. We would watch meteor showers, crab hunt, and explore as much as possible in the moonlight that always seemed to be present casting an erie glow on the fort and surrounding ranger cabins.

One night there was a small campfire light just past the entrance of the fort and several park rangers where going to tell stories. I was immediately entralled and found a seat on the front bench with my Dad and brother trailing behind me wondering what I was up to. The story began and the ranger asked if any of us had noticed the explosion site near the front of the fort. We stated we had, and then he asked if there was anything particular we noticed about it.

I stared at the gapping whole in the fort trying to make a pattern or distinction from the crumbling brick and rubble. As the light from the Pensacola lighthouse flashed across the harbor and illuminated the damaged portion of the fort, we were suddenly able to see the siloiete of a person’s profile. I shot a look back at the ranger wide eyed with anticipation to find out who this person, forever memorialized in this old fort, really was.

He began to tell us of a part of American history I knew very little of, the fate of the Apache warriors. As the American nation began to spread west ward the Apaches and many other Native Americans were forced to give up land, innocently killed, and treated deplorably. Geronimo and his band of warriors were knowns as some of the most fierce warriors of their time and eventually were captured and transported by train to be held captive at Ft. Pickens in Pensacola Beach, FL. 

Geronimo spent years as a captive to the American government, but according to the history the rangers gave, remained a good man at heart. It was said that he helped others when they were sick, taught skills and other survival techniques that were unknown to the soldiers gaurding them, and learned to write his name to sell autographs to visitors the American Government paraded to the fort by farey for daily tours.

The Apache warriors were forced to live in squalor and worked a rigorous manual labor schedule removing catci from the sandy island ground. Two years into the sentence between the Government and the treaty Geronimo agreed to, he and his warriors were relocated to Alabama. In 1899 an accidental explosion happened at Ft. Pickens in the area that Geronimo and his warriors were imprissoned. Ammunition had been stored in the area since the warriors had been relocated and when some ordance was accidentally ignited, it blew bricks and other debris from the fort a mile and a half away. The remaining structure of the fort was left in the same damaged state after the explosion as the military had began to depend on other measures for defence and remains to this day. 

When the lighthouse sweeps the fort at night and illuminates the siloette it is the profile of Geronimo that can be seen. As if he wanted it known that the Government had wrongfully imprisoned and captured his people. I never thought about the fort in the same way after learning that story and always admired Geronimo for doing everything he could to fight an oppressive regime that was destined to eradicate him and others because they were different.
I wish that lesson had remained with me when I joined the military, however many years passed between that childhood campfire story at the fort and my patriotism to defend the Constitution after the attacks of September 11 and I was terribly disillusioned about the things my government were going to have me doing. When I left the island as a child I always left wanting more, I just couldn’t get enough of that tiny island and it’s inhabits. By the time I graduated A-school and was getting ready to transfer, I could not get away from the island fast enough. I never understood the disconnect until possibly even today, but after the military, Pensacola aroused unpleasant emotions I had never experienced before.

One remarkable aspect I forgot about from my lesson on Geronimo was that he stated “I should have never surrendered. I should have fought until I was the last man alive.” As a whimsical little girl I can see why I did not grasp that part of the lesson, but as the adult typing this today, I feel almost sheepish that it was ever forgotten. I wish that I had the strength this man had to face and stand up to my oppressors that kept me confined and isolated in horror. I wish I would have stood up to my superiors when my instincts told me to and done the right thing instead of set ideally by in numerous occasions.

There were many times during military service in which I did surrender, and those were the times that almost killed me. I fight daily now to not surrender to the depths of my brain that are the hell of living with PTSD. It took me a long time to decide to keep fighting. I drank it away and denied it all for many years. I could not understand why I could not find happiness when I visited my favorite old spots in childhood, especially when I visited Pensacola. 

On vacation last year, as I strolled along the top of Ft. Pickens and stared across the harbor at what was my old life the wind began to pick up from across the gulf. I lifted my head to the warm sun glaring overhead and my eyes rest on the old crumbling bits of the fort that once imprissoned Geronimo and a smile crossed my lips. As the unmistakable noise of an F-18 flew overhead and snapped me back to reality, I suddenly remembered Geronimo’s lesson; Never surrender. My heart felt at peace and for the first time since leaving the beach as a scared young airman starting my life in the Navy, and I felt like the carefree little girl that grew up exploring and loving that island for all of the lessons it had and continues to give me. That day I felt a renewed love for my beautiful Santa Rosa Island and felt the desire to share my knowledge with my husband and family. Pride swelled as we entered the tiny museum and walked along the harbor walls as I had when I was a child. 

I was able to look at the base and remember that it was not all bad. I remembered my friends that I made when I was there and the fun things I had done. I got to see an old squadron mate that I love with all my heart and instead of dreading any possible intrusive thoughts, I was able to embrace the occasion and be present in our conversation. For the first time since leaving the beach in 2002, I finally felt as if I had no more unfinished business in Pensacola. I did not surrender to the irrational thoughts and beliefs I had attached to my favorite place on earth and instead was able to fall even deeper in love with the beauty and mystique that is Santa Rosa Island, and for that I will always thank Geronimo.