Like a lot of Americans, I have a hard time around 9/11. It’s hard to even write about it but I am going to push through the fear. Like Eleanor Roosevelt has been quoted: “Courage is more exhilarating than fear and in the long run it is easier.” (As I take deep breaths.) This statement could not be more true. (Long pause.) I wish I could take an anti-anxiety pill. I’m still taking deep breaths.
The Aftermath of 9/11
Here goes… We had just come back from the hospital where I had learned that my father was not doing well. I was trying to accept it while comforting him at the same time. A couple years earlier my father was diagnosed and treated for throat cancer. After his throat cancer treatment was completed, he learned that the cancer had spread and he had bone cancer with only six months to live. (I just realized I have never written these words.) Already I feel a sense of release. (Deep breathing.)
We sat down on the couch and turned the television on. We used to sit and watch Law and Order for hours and of course analyze and have discussion about what we learned. As I got older I realized just how much I thought and behaved like my dad. It was comforting. This time I was having a conversation with my dad about end of life. It was pretty deep (holding back tears) but both of us got to express our emotions and move on.
While we were sitting there the programming was interrupted with images of the first tower that had been hit and it captured our attention. Then in real time, we watched the second plane hit the other World Trade Center tower and we were completely stunned. My immediate thoughts were, “Oh no, shit is gonna hit the fan in the military” and my country needs me. Out of nervous utterance, I started pacing and rambling about how this was going to change everything for me. My dad was supportive and understanding of how my life was about to change. I thought this was a terrible thing for him to witness before he left this Earth.
I was a satellite communications technician for the 267th Combat Communications Squadron in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. We already trained in a high ops tempo just because it’s the nature of the job in mobility squadrons. As a mobile communications unit, we needed to be ready within three days on a moment’s notice. That meant that all our training and inventory needed to be in order so that we were not scrambling last minute if we needed to head out the door. This squadron was the lead on Theatre Deployable Communications for the National Guard so we were especially prone to real world deployments.
Enter 9/11. We were scheduled to report to the squadron the following weekend and we all got calls instructing us to be there. I didn’t even hesitate because there was no other place that I wanted to be than with my squadron. This was real world and I wanted to do my part in the war on terror. These attacks were a blatant act of terrorism and the reason we need the US military. The attacks hi-jacked my mind from losing my dad to serving my country. I had to go.
Reporting for Duty
I left Friday, 9/14, to drive the four hour drive to Cape Cod from my dad’s home. Unlike the last time I was there, the base was locked down and guarded. We needed to produce our military IDs in order to gain access to the base. Prior to 9/11, the Massachusetts Military Reservation roads were wide open to the public. I liked the new security; it made me feel safer given what just went down.
The next day I reported to duty. Around lunch time I got the fateful call that forever changed my life. I learned that my father had passed. I was escorted to our work center where I met with the Commander and a Chaplain behind closed doors. I fell to my knees and started crying while both military officers comforted me and helped me process the devastating news. I felt like someone had knocked the wind right out of me. My Commander coordinated my safe return to Maine. On the way home, I kept repeating, “I just wanted to say good bye.” I eventually learned my dad died Friday night not long after I left for Massachusetts.
After the funeral, I returned to work. I realized that the duty to serve in the military helped me pull through the experience of losing my dad. It gave me a renewed sense of purpose. I was considered non-deployable while I was undergoing grievance treatment. I wanted nothing more than to be deployed with my squadron. But the Commander knew my situation and instead asked me to help run things at home station while our people were deployed. I felt needed and it positively contributed to my recovery process. This is the kind of supportive response I needed from the Commander at that time.
I was very thankful for the opportunity to finally implement the leadership skills I used to teach to our Senior Airman at Airman Leadership School at Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts. My whole shop was deployed by October so I was it. As new troops came into the shop, I trained them to the best of my ability. I created checklists that had not existed before including how to set up the satellite communications van for access to a satellite. It was the most important function of the operation and they needed to know how to do it as much as I did. I gained some valuable experience during that unique opportunity and was impressed with the caliber of troops that joined the military after 9/11.
After the shop returned from their six month deployment to a bare base, the dynamics of the work center changed. The original leaders were back in their positions of authority and we were all asked to stand down. There was major upheaval over the incompetence of the Non Commissioned Officer in Charge of Satellite Communications. Those that deployed with him refused to work for him and transferred to the wideband work center. And quite frankly, I agreed. What he may have had in experience, he did not make up for with personnel skills. He was disrespectful, he belittled people, he was arrogant, and he tried to intimidate me. Because everyone left, I ended up being the only one left in the work center with any experience.
This same NCOIC became my worst nightmare. I had reported to the Medical Squadron that I was temporarily taking anti-depression medication as a coping mechanism while seeking treatment for the loss of my dad. The next thing I know, my NCOIC and other leaders in the Chain of Command are making comments about how I am taking ‘happy pills’. I felt completely violated learning that my personal medical information was fodder for their brains. Instead of supporting me, they judged me. The NCOIC that everyone hated walked up to me and said, “If you take the pills for too long, you will lose your security clearance.” I privately cried at the thought of losing my career so I set out to get off them against medical advice.
Side note: After retiring from the military I learned that soldiers can seek treatment for combat PTSD, grieving, and family issues without it impacting their security clearance. This helped me keep my career while seeking treatment for grieving but did nothing for the help I finally received for the aftermath of military sexual assault. I was quite astonished that combat PTSD was exempt but PTSD from military sexual trauma was not. Once the authorities who deal with security clearances learned that I was seeking treatment at the Department of Veteran Affairs, they called me and then came to the house and asked me to sign a release of information for them. I was taken by surprise that it would be of that much interest to them and felt obligated to sign it.
But I then began feeling uncomfortable when I realized that they would learn of details. I did not want to sign a blanket release for my records regardless of what they told me they wanted. It made me feel violated all over again and with the help of the VA, I rescinded the release, knowing that I had in effect ended my career by default (I was already in the midst of the medical retirement process). The loopholes I had jumped through to keep my career had finally met their match. No security clearance, no military career. I am thankful now that I rescinded the release (considering I lost my career anyways) because my security clearance records do not contain the details of events I would rather forget.
Expedited Transfer, National Guard Style
Six months prior to 9/11, I transferred to the 267th in Cape Cod, Massachusetts to escape both subtle and not so subtle retaliation from both my peers and my Chain of Command at the Maine Air National Guard. I had reported four different male soldiers in 1999 who had sexually assaulted me within the first two years of service. We were only able to move forward with two cases because of jurisdiction issues. The other two, a Technical Sergeant and my Non Commissioned Officer in Charge (NCOIC), a Master Sergeant, eventually agreed to a “plea bargain” (at the time approved by me). All I wanted was for them to stop assaulting me, I wanted the cases to be over, and I wanted to get back to work doing what I loved doing. But that’s not how it went down. I was set up, jumped and beat by friends of one of the perpetrators. My dad lovingly supported me through the reporting process, the legal process, and beyond. No matter how bad others tried to make me feel, he was there to lift me back up and remind me that I did the right thing. I bought a new car and moved in with my dad after the physical altercation because I no longer felt safe living alone in the city.
The Commander who handled the investigation of the sexual assaults was very professional. He handled the complaints with integrity guided by the legal opinions of the military prosecutor. He remained as unbiased as possible but I knew that he knew that I was telling the truth. Only a sociopath would volunteer to report a crime in the military if it wasn’t true (and they are just as dangerous). These crimes were a blatant abuse of power and control which makes it that much more deviant. The foundation of the military depends on following orders. Your orders are top down and authoritarian in nature. When someone takes advantage of that position, it erodes trust and quickly breaks down morale. Bottom line, I just wanted to serve my country without having to watch my back and worry about who was going to force themselves on me next. This was ridiculous.
Justice was not served in my case. We learned that the two men we did have cases for had histories of sexually assaulting others. My Commander learned why the recruiter quit his job and moved out of State so quickly. I told him I had called the recruiter myself from Keesler AFB after learning he too had sexually assaulted another potential recruit. I recognized the modus operandi immediately and called him at work to tell him that I was reporting him to the Commander upon my return home (in the hopes that we would not dare do this again to some other unsuspecting female recruit). But instead he fled to North Carolina and gave up his 15+ year career.
The second attacker was active duty Air Force therefore we had zero jurisdiction over him since the crime occurred on a active duty base in Mississippi. I knew better then to report him while I was active duty at Keesler Air Force Base for fear that they would keep me at that base on orders while we navigated the legal process. Staying on or near that base after reporting the crime would have put me at risk knowing how dangerous this guy was. He was a stalker and not only took advantage of his power over me as an instructor but he showed up at random locations around town as if he was following me. My decision not to report was cemented after witnessing the only other female soldier in my career field report sexual harassment by an instructor. She was swiftly witch hunted and kicked out on a technicality.
The other two attackers I worked with at the squadron. I had been putting up with their crap long enough. I didn’t want to have to report for fear of how it would impact my military career but I had to escape the abuse. We didn’t have enough evidence for one of the cases so that Technical Sergeant got kicked out of the Maine Air National Guard honorably. He turned around and joined the New Hampshire Air National Guard (and eventually retired). The Master Sergeant, the NCOIC in my chain of command, lost a stripe (he was now a TSgt), was fired from his full-time federal technician position at the 265th CBCS, and was transferred to Headquarters until he could quietly retire at 20 years. My commander informed me that because both of them had over 18 years of service, they were in a protected category. In the plea deal, I reluctantly agreed to the NCOIC getting his MSgt rank and pay back upon retirement. Unbeknownst to me, neither of them were placed on a sex offender registry. At the time I assumed both the military and civilian sex offender registries were connected.
Team Chief at 267th Combat Communications Squadron
The continued ill treatment by my NCOIC at my new squadron brought me right back to the place I had just desperately escaped. I had nowhere else to go if I wanted to continue with a seamless career in satellite communications. I was in a career field that required technical knowledge in order to gain rank. If I had changed career fields, I would have had to start over and that would have delayed my rank progression. I needed to obtain what was called a 7-Level certification so that I could make the next rank of Technical Sergeant. Although I exceeded the standards for my next stripe, my NCOIC told me that I lacked leadership skills. (Despite training our new troops and successfully leading operations, a lifetime of people telling me I am a born leader, teaching Airman Leadership School, and getting my Master’s Degree.) So much for the whole person concept they taught us in the US Air Force leadership schools.
I worked really hard and did everything with perfection. I was so fearful of being belittled that I did everything exactly the way the technical orders instructed. If I was demeaned or spoken to in a harsh manner, I would freeze. Instead of training me to become the 7-Level they wanted, they instead set up roadblocks and would ask me ‘gotcha’ questions to try and make me look stupid and incompetant. Sometimes I knew the answers and sometimes I didn’t but the way they were asked would put my body in fight or flight and I would freeze. If left alone with my team to do my job, I excelled and was successful at setting up and operating the satellite communications system for every operation. Their toxic leadership was breaking me down.
I eventually questioned others in the shop about why I was being treated so badly. I had some people who supported me quietly. We all understood that if you defied the NCOIC or anyone in the Chain of Command, you would experience the ‘267 Take Down’ too. Behind the scenes, my peers let me cry on their shoulders, validated my feelings, and worked seamlessly with me when we were in operation or mobility mode. Someone in my shop told me that the squadron in Maine had called my new chain of command in Massachusetts and told them that I was a ‘troublemaker’. I didn’t want to report again for fear of the retaliation I had just escaped. I just had to find the strength to endure so that I could get my Technical Sergeant stripe.
Informal Complaints to Chain of Command
In the end, I had to report gender discrimination informally three times because I was not prepared to fight anything formally in the military again. The first time I reported I went up my Chain of Command to question a decision they had made. They needed a new Team Chief and I was the most qualified with the most experience yet they wanted to make a male soldier I had trained from start to finish my boss. I had seven years in the job; he had two. After questioning them, I was given the Team Chief position. But this came with new warnings that I was going to be put under a microscope, and believe you me, they did.
The abuse only got worse after I obtained the Team Chief position. Instead of supporting me, they would not give me the information I needed to do my job effectively and would punish me for things that I had no power and control over. As a matter of fact, they would punish me for not doing their job. The things they were asking me to do required knowledge that they would not share with me so I was not able to make a holistic assessment of our needs or review the maintenance budgets to determine if they would sustain us. Those were the things they should have been teaching me but instead I experienced payback for going over their heads to get the Team Chief position I deserved.
The abusive, belittling, vindictive behavior did not let up. They literally had nothing on me. I was great at my job, worked well with the team, and basically taught myself everything I knew. And I was determined not to treat my people the same way. I was going to pass on the information so they could be just as good at their jobs as I was. I trained myself out of a job because that’s what you have to do in the military. Any one of us could die at any time in a war-time environment and we needed redundancy in skill sets so that our equipment ran seamlessly in support of our customer whose lives were depending on it.
I had to fight for my Technical Sergeant stripe too. I was eventually promoted to E-6 with the help of a female Master Sergeant who advocated on my behalf with the Commander. I had shared with her what I was going through and she courageously intervened on my behalf. I worked at the squadron during the week and had got to know the full-time employees and the Commander very well. Unfortunately, the dynamics of the squadron changed on National Guard weekends when my NCOIC was there. All promotions went through the Chain of Command. This one came directly from the Commander. After getting the stripe, the new threat was that I was going to lose it if I did anything wrong.
Substandard Performance Paperwork & EEO Complaint
Not long after being promoted, I was blindsided with paperwork called a Letter of Reprimand (LOR) for not knowing how to troubleshoot and my punishment would include losing my new Technical Sergeant stripe. Of course, no examples were provided to show my “substandard performance” as they termed it. I was called into the Officer in Charge’s office with my enlisted Chain of Command and presented with the paperwork. After reading it I immediately stood up and said, “Can I make a copy of this?” They wanted me to sign it first but I refused to sign it and instead told them I needed to make some phone calls and that I would get back with them. I took that piece of paperwork from that office as evidence of gender discrimination.
I called the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) office initially and they referred me to EEO, Equal Employment Opportunity. The EEO office determined that I did have a case of gender discrimination and told me I could file a complaint informally or formally. I chose the informal route again and the complaint was referred back to my Commander, the same Commander who had treated me so well through my experience losing my father. Now, we were on opposite sides and it felt like there was no recovering from this. As part of the complaint I was asked what I wanted the result to look like. All I wanted was to escape the abuse of the leaders in my work center, to attend my scheduled Non Commissioned Officer Academy, and to transfer back to Maine where my home was located.
My Commander did his required investigation and called me into a meeting to share his results. His investigation concluded with “allegations could not be substantiated.” He saw the reaction on my face and before I blew a top said, “But you can have anything you want.” And I immediately felt a sense of relief. I would not get justice but I finally had permission to escape the daily barrage of insults and set ups. We had a big inspection coming up so he asked me to stay at the squadron until it was over and work in another capacity. I had no problem with that. I worked for the same Master Sergeant who had advocated for me to get my Technical Sergeant stripe. After the inspection, I changed career fields and transferred to a new squadron in Maine. This was another version of the expedited transfer, National Guard style. I prayed for a new start this time.
A New Start
I didn’t want to change career fields but it was that or transfer back to the 265th CBCS. I could not get over the betrayal I experienced from that squadron. I thought maybe a new career field would not have the same kind of men I had encountered in the maintenance career fields. I was literally forced out of a job I loved because I was in the National Guard and had nowhere else to go unless I moved. My expedited transfers ran out. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on my technical training and it all went down the tubes. All of it was so unnecessary.
Over the years, it was hard going home to an empty house that was once owned by my father. Unlike the first time I had to report crimes in the military, he was not here to support and comfort me. While others tore me down, he would build me up. But, I did feel safe within the confines of my new home. He had told me even after he was gone, he wanted me to have his house to keep me safe and protected from the outside world. This would be my safe place where I could rest and build strength to take on the world again and again. I continue to find the strength to endure but I miss my father telling me that I was his beautiful, genius daughter.