An emotional salute to mothers, daughters, sisters and veterans
Patrons of the veteran-owned gun shop where Staff Sgt. Kimberly Pate works sometimes ask if she "belongs to" one of her male co-workers. They often ask her to thank the men she works with for their service to this country. She smiles, politely, and informs them that she, too, is a veteran.
"The typical image of a veteran is a deployment photo of a man in uniform," Pate says. "A woman is not what people think of on this day."
Pate was an explosives expert who spent nine years as an explosive ordnance disposal technician in the Air Force before being medically retired in 2013. In 2011, Pate's husband, EJ, an EOD tech whom she met in training, was killed in the line of duty.
Lauren Montoya enlisted in the Army at the age of 20 after spending three years at Texas A&M University. Two years later, Montoya volunteered for combat duty with the Special Forces in Afghanistan. She is a single-leg amputee, an athlete and a Purple Heart recipient. Yet when people see the Purple Heart license plate she displays on her car, they ask what her husband did in the service. "It hurts when people assume you didn't serve or don't believe I have seen combat," Montoya says. "Not because I'm not capable, but because I'm a girl."
Lauren Montoya is a veteran.
"It's empowering," says Capt. Michele Gonzalez, who served for six years as a military intelligence officer in the Army. "It's part of my past and it's still with me. Sometimes I forget that. I look at myself and think, 'I'm a mom. I'm a runner.' But I'm more."
Michele Gonzalez is a veteran.
So, too, are Laura Ortiz and April Cook, Bernetta Williams, Shawn Cheshire, Tiffany Johnson-Pittman and about two million other women living in the United States. On March 20, Sgt. Lucy Coffey departed from their ranks. The oldest living female veteran, Coffey died at her San Antonio home at the age of 108. Seventy-one years ago, a 37-year-old Coffey quit her job at a grocery store in Dallas to enlist in the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps and join the more than 400,000 women who served during World War II. Today's female veterans stand on her shoulders.
"When people think of veterans, they think of a man, or an older man, or an older white man," says Johnson-Pittman, who served for nine years as a supply systems analyst in the Air Force. "They don't think of us. They don't think of women, so women get pushed to the background."
These are the faces of veterans. They are mothers and daughters and sisters and wives. They are combat veterans and explosives experts and wounded warriors. They are widows and trauma survivors and they suffer from PTSD. They performed the jobs of their male counterparts, deployed to the same hellish combat zones and carry with them the same torturous memories.
Today, on Veterans Day, it is time those women are lifted out of the shadows and celebrated.
As a helicopter armament specialist in the U.S. Army, Shawn Cheshire, 40, served eight years during the Persian Gulf War before being honorably discharged at the age of 25. She sustained several injuries during her years of service, but it was an injury she suffered a decade later that changed the course of her life. A single mother of two young girls, Cheshire put herself through school after leaving the military and entered public service as an EMT and paramedic in Boston. Then in December 2010, while loading a patient into the back of an ambulance, she slipped on ice, hit her head and suffered a closed head injury that resulted in a traumatic brain injury and eventually the total loss of her vision. Within two years, she had lost her driver's license, her job, her independence and her will to live.
"I wasn't sure how to survive. I was in the depths of despair. Looking back now, I was fortunate. The staff at the VA hospital in Syracuse, New York, was amazing. They cared for me. They forced me to face my depression. They encouraged me and pushed me into adaptive sports. Even though years had passed since I'd been in the military, they welcomed me with open arms. At first, I ran tethered to an individual, which was terrifying. I started running half-marathons. In September 2013, I was sent to the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs and had my first experience on a tandem bicycle. I showed up to the camp with such a bad attitude. All I could think about was how difficult my life had become. I had to make a decision to go home or change my attitude and realize I don't have to sink. I had to have a goal. I needed a focus that would consume my days. I was told by many people that I could maybe make it to the 2020 Paralympic Games, but Rio in 2016 wasn't feasible. Don't tell me I can't do it. Rio became my goal. I changed my diet, trained six hours a day and worked hard. In March 2014 I was paired with a [bicycle] pilot and we raced our first road race that April. We won silver. I was officially on Team USA. When I joined the military at 17, I was very much a kid. There were moments when I didn't think I was going to make it in basic training and I wanted to quit. But I didn't. Now I understand the growth in that. If I made it through basic, I can do this, too." -- Shawn Cheshire
"I'm a hands-on person and need to be in the mix and get down, dirty and gritty," Bernetta Williams says of her time in the U.S. Navy. "I needed something hands-on to keep me focused and headstrong after high school." During her five years of service, Williams, now 27 and a student at Temple University, worked as a material liaison officer on a Naval Construction Mobile Battalion that deployed every 10 months, first to Japan and then to Iraq and Afghanistan. But she wasn't content simply performing her job. While deployed to Afghanistan, she became an advocate for the women on base, worked with the MWR -- Morale, Welfare and Recreation -- to create an activities center and became the head of the fitness program for women, where she encouraged and guided her fellow servicewomen through the rigors of daily physical training.
"In Afghanistan, I worked with a lot of officers and gave them my insight from the enlisted side as far as what we needed for our women. My suggestions were including women more into the activities on a construction base. I suggested allowing women to get more acclimated with construction duties, drive forklifts and trucks and be more hands-on in construction projects. When I was a kid, sports was everything to me. I was shy. Sports was the way I interacted with people on a different level and a huge part of me building friendships. Overseas, my sports background gave me the courage to run without restraints and let go of the fear of my times and people judging how I looked when I ran. That was easier to do when you had a team of people cheering you on. I would run alongside other women and encourage them to keep running, even if I didn't think I could do it. Encouraging them motivated me and we would finish together. The higher-ups saw that and asked me to become the head PT coordinator for women. Running now means a lot in my life. While I'm running, I'm able to exhale and not think about my troubles or problems and just live and love. It allows me to clear my head and focus." -- Bernetta Williams
Now 34, Tiffany Johnson-Pittman is a full-time student at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, where she is double-majoring in business and music. She lives with her husband and daughter, is a singer and songwriter and hopes one day to use her degrees to market her own music. She is also in recovery for post-traumatic stress and depression and still dealing with the effects of two deployments to Iraq and the trauma of separating from the Air Force in 2009, where she served as a supply systems analyst, leaving behind a lifestyle that was all she had known for nine years of her young life.
"During my time in the military, I was a single parent. When I deployed for the first time, I had to ship my daughter, who was 6 at the time, off to a family member; we had never been separated. Just because I am in a war zone and in uniform doesn't mean I stop being a mother. I worried about her well-being. When you're on active duty, you set aside a lot for the mission, things like your physical and mental health. When I separated from the military, all the things I didn't deal with personally for nine years came back to me. In the military, there is a manual for everything. But there are no manuals for how to deal with what you didn't deal with while you were in the military. Those things come back, like the attacks on base and going to the fallout shelter for the first time. When you come home and hear somebody's tire blow out in the highway, you think you're under attack. Nobody tells you how to deal with the dreams and the nightmares and the insomnia, or when the depression comes back to you. There was a time when I didn't even have the strength to take care of my daughter. I sent her to live with my family and started counseling. In 2010, I met the leader of Women Vets Rock and found other women who served in the military. Being around likeminded female vets was a huge support. I also started taking road trips and exploring on long walks. I started riding my bike. It helps me relieve stress, calm down and opens my mind." -- Tiffany Johnson-Pittman
Three years into her studies at Texas A&M University, Lauren Montoya decided it was time. She'd grown up in a military family and felt the pull toward service, but she believed she would know when the time was right, and in what capacity she wanted to serve. In 2011, at the age of 20, she left A&M and enlisted in the Army. She trained to become a human intelligence collector and began her service stationed at the 10th Mountain Division in Fort Drum, New York. But it wasn't enough; she'd joined the military in a time of war and wanted to fight for her country. So she submitted a volunteer application and was chosen to deploy to Afghanistan with the 7th Special Forces Group conducting counterterrorism operations. Four months into her deployment, while returning from a mission, Montoya's convoy encountered a command-wire improvised explosive device. She was the main gunner for the lead truck in the convoy, which rolled over the IED. Remarkably, everyone in the truck survived, but Montoya suffered extensive injuries to her left leg. She was awarded a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, among many commendations for her service.
"I did limb salvage for about a year and my quality of life was not great. I couldn't run, couldn't jump, couldn't walk. Then I had a below-the-knee amputation. The first six months were rough. I dropped almost 30 pounds. I didn't look like the same person I was before I was injured. I didn't feel like I was tough anymore. I didn't feel like I was strong. The Special Operations Command has an organization called the Care Coalition. You're offered the best treatment, the best doctors, equipment you need. It was through them that I found the military adaptive sports program. They introduced me to an entire world of competitive sports I didn't know existed and that helped change the defeated attitude I had. When I was a kid, sports were very important. I grew up playing football in the street and basketball and baseball and swimming and softball. I was very competitive. After my injury, I found that passion for sports and being athletic again. I started training and went to trials for the Warrior Games, where I competed in swimming -- in freestyle and breaststroke -- and track. I didn't throw a discus or shot put until I started practicing for the Warrior Games. Turns out, I'm not that bad. My injury not only has made me a more fierce competitor, but it lit a fire under me to want to compete. I'm not going to let an injury stop me from doing the things I want to do. And I'm doing this to honor those who can't." -- Lauren Montoya
Michele Gonzalez used to look at running as a necessity. It was a way to keep in shape, required conditioning when she competed on West Point's JV basketball team and a way to prepare for active duty. But during her third deployment to Iraq, a 15-month stretch from 2007-09, running became her release. A military intelligence officer in the Army, Gonzalez had risen to the rank of captain and was the division intelligence targeting officer with demanding responsibilities. Each day, she briefed one- and two-star generals and worked 16-hour days. She was tired, stressed and homesick. Running became her outlet, something she made time for each day, no matter her schedule or the heat of Baghdad summers. By the time she left the military in 2009 and returned home to Staten Island, New York, running had become an integral part of her life. She has since run thousands of miles, 13 marathons and the 2013 Lake Placid Ironman triathlon. She ran through two pregnancies, became a coach to other runners and has grown a devoted following on Instagram, Twitter and her blog, NYCrunningmama.com. In 2016, Gonzalez has set a goal to run the Boston Marathon in under 3 hours, 10 minutes.
"I ran my first marathon while I was at West Point. I didn't love it. Running wasn't a part of me. That didn't happen until my third deployment. It was the longest. I was going to miss two Christmases and two New Year's [holidays] and one of my sisters was pregnant. I was extremely homesick and looking for an outlet. That's when I turned to running. It was my time to be alone with my thoughts, and it filled this void that was in my life at the time. I ended up training for the Boston Marathon during that deployment. Running made me happy. I was stationed in Baghdad, which was the largest base, so I was able to go out on long runs and explore the base. I ran when it was hot and over 100 degrees. It was a good way to sweat out everything. It felt like a cleansing process every day. I left the military in 2009 because I wanted to start a family and set my roots. Running had been such a part of me in the military, and it carried its way through to where I am today. It went from something I had to do to something that I loved. If you let it, running can be an extremely meditative, therapeutic activity. I never just sit and allow myself to be alone with my thoughts -- unless I'm running. Especially after leaving the military, whenever I have stress or I'm dealing with something, I always turn to running." -- Michele Gonzalez
Army National Guard
Life is about adaptation, says Laura Ortiz, who served in the Army National Guard from 1993-2001 as a lab technician. Although she never deployed, Ortiz, 46, says her time in the Army taught her self-worth, the importance of working as a team and instilled in her a desire to make the most of every day. Raised by a single mother in various projects in New Jersey, she enlisted at 24 with the hopes of changing her circumstances, exploring her country and gaining life experience. Seven years after she re-entered civilian life, on July 23, 2008, she lost her right leg below the knee in a hit-and-run motorcycle accident. She drew on the lessons and community she gained while in the service and, with her positivity and zest for life, began training as a Paralympic athlete, traveling the country to speak and represent women veterans and peer mentoring at the very place where her life was saved seven years ago, Jackson Memorial Ryder Trauma Center in Miami.
"I had to wait 4 1/2 months to get my first prosthesis, and during that time I was on crutches. The toughest words I've ever had to learn were, 'I need your help.' I had to learn to balance and walk again. I got a stability ball and focused on my core and trunk. I learned self-defense and boxing and yoga -- things I didn't do when I had two legs. The first time I did a headstand without my leg was amazing. I was facing fears. I felt like the worst thing that could happen already happened and I was ready for what was next. I went to Paralympic camps in Oklahoma City, a triathlon camp in Pensacola Beach and joined the Challenged Athletes Foundation out of California. I went to sailing school. At the 2011 Desert Challenge Games, I took gold in the 100 meters and silver in the 200 meters. Now I'm training in rowing and want to make the Paralympic Games in Rio next summer. I want to inspire and motivate. I believe we are all warriors regardless if you've been in conflict or didn't get deployed. There is a connection because you know the sacrifices you had to make to get up in the morning and be away from the people you love. I'm honored I've had this opportunity to represent those who don't have a voice and to give women veterans someone to identify with. I work with the Miami-Dade Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces Department as part of an initiative called Troops For Fitness. We hire veterans to lead boot camp fitness classes and help integrate veterans into living a purposeful life. I'm a master trainer and an instructor for older adults. I think I make being an amputee cool." -- Laura Ortiz
Before the dust settled on the attacks of September 11, 2001, April Cook was sitting across from her local recruiter enlisting in the Navy Reserves. She was at seminary grad school when she got the call the next year that she was being sent to Iraq with a combat search-and-rescue squadron. There, she volunteered with the medevac, assisted injured service members in their recovery and supported those who were dying. While she was on active duty, she was the victim of a violent sexual trauma that resulted in physical and emotional injuries she continues to recover from today. Two years ago, during her recovery, she received her master's degree in professional counseling and began working with other women vets through an organization called Paws 4 Vets, which trains assistance dogs for vets and active-duty service members with post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury and military sexual trauma. The 35-year-old, who lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, plans to take this regional program nationwide.
"My sexual trauma was very violent and I incurred a concussion. ... I finished my two years of active duty and returned home to my command to attempt to live my life again. The good news is, the military made adjustments in their policies, so I was able to feel safe with my reserve command to report my assault and start the medical treatment I needed. I started lots of therapy and got a service dog for extra support. I didn't realize the extent of my physical injuries until a couple years later. I kept tripping and falling, had difficulty following directions and communicating and got chronic migraines. I had to begin speech therapy and learn to organize and plan again. I started engaging in adaptive sports and went to a weeklong adaptive camp in Idaho. We went fly-fishing, hiking, horseback riding and on a very difficult hike along the side of the Salmon River I didn't think I could do. Adaptive sports has been a phenomenal part of my recovery. When you are used to being able to carry 50 pounds and run with everybody and then, all of a sudden, you can't, it's hard. I had a grieving process for who I was before my trauma. Getting involved in adaptive sports made me realize I don't have to give up being an active person. When I was younger, the term 'athlete' was unattainable. It meant one of those amazing, magical people I could never become. Then I started doing all of this and I realized with hard work, I could in my own way become an athlete." -- April Cook
Anyone who's seen "The Hurt Locker," the 2010 Oscar winner about an Army bomb disposal team, can visualize the military career of Kimberly Pate, who retired from the Air Force in 2013 after serving for nine years as an explosive ordnance disposal technician. She calls EOD school the best time of her life; it's where she learned "the greatest job I ever had" and met the love of her life. She deployed twice, to Baghdad in 2008 and Kuwait in 2011. During her second deployment, she was informed that her husband, EJ Pate, who was deployed to Afghanistan at the time, was killed while fighting in Helmand province. She returned home on emergency leave and then was forced with the decision to leave the military or return to the job that had taken her husband.
"I loved my job. I loved what it stood for, and I had a purpose in life. I stayed as long as I could. I was a widow at 25. I was also an active duty EOD technician and struggled. It was weird going out on calls and doing the same thing that had taken my husband. I had to remember we were doing something for a purpose. I suffered from anxiety and depression and didn't want to be out of the house. Crowds bothered me. I didn't want to be alone, but I didn't want to be with people, either. I was deteriorating. In 2013, I was medically retired. To go through some of the stuff we've had to go through, you put your emotions in a box on a shelf and you do your job. After years of doing that, it gets harder each time to take the box off the shelf and deal with it. You end up being closed off and you don't connect to your emotions anymore. I've worked on trying to open the box and get back in touch with my emotions. I started yoga, which was good because there's no impact. During my military career, I had back surgery to repair herniated disks and a shoulder reconstruction. I'm still learning how to modify exercise. I like to swim and go on motorcycle rides like I did with my husband. I got a bike with more suspension and take shorter trips. I went on a widow retreat to overcome fears. We did trapeze. I would like to try surfing in Australia and go on a hike through the Swiss Alps. Traveling helps. You see that there is this huge world of great things and amazing food and great people in the world. Not everything is bad and life is worth living." -- Kimberly Pate