As a little girl, and like most girls, my Mom dressed me in pink, frilly dresses and bows. When asked as a young girl, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” I lacked similar responses to the girls in my class. I may have said doctor, lawyer, nurse, and social worker just to fit in with the crowd. But deep down, I really wanted to be a GI JOE. I always felt different, not that I did not belong, but rather my soul was calling for a journey to help others on a world stage. And to this day, I might own one pink dress; my closet is still comprised of all things camo, with a touch of sparkle.
I joined the Army officially in 2007. Trained as an intelligence officer, my roles were largely in general leadership positions. I knew I made the right decision for me. This was where I fit in, this was my calling: service and sacrifice to our great nation. I had found my tribe. When we deployed to Iraq for the first time in 2009, the war was less splattered with bullets but more with bombs and brutal politics. I ran a PSD (Personal Security Detail) for my Commander, another female, whom I looked up to very much. We were on the road day in and day out. Every chance we got before we left the FOB (Forward Observing Base: place where we slept) we prayed to God, “God, please do not make this the day we die.” It seemed we would be on a road, Route Irish, for example, not 12 hours earlier, and another sister unit was hit with a bomb. Everyday felt like your last day on Earth. It left us wondering, have we lived our lives to the fullest potential, have we called our families recently to tell them we loved them? Imagine living a full year at the most alert state your mind could possibly be in, like you were in overdrive everyday. Oh, and the trash! The smell! Iraqi communities were resourceful. Some built homes from trash just to survive. Just driving through these “towns” made us miss American soil like never before and reminded us perhaps it is not so bad when the toilet never stops running at your house.
I was not just the boss or platoon leader to these Soldiers— out of 57 people, there was only one other female— but also their mother, sister, friend, and counselor. At 23 years old, I was making decisions that baffle my mind even today. For instance, I gave the order to “shoot or don’t shoot” to a vehicle that was trying to violently encroach and compromise the integrity of my convoy. When the gunner of my fourth vehicle radioed asking me if he had permission to shoot, I had about a five-second window to make the call based on the verbal information he was giving me. To this day, if I cannot make a decision in five seconds, I fail to make one at all.
It is not just the decisions I made, it’s the ones I didn’t make that will forever have an impact on the future of my own struggle with mental health. As one of my squads was out on a mission, and I was out on another, they were hit with an EFP (Explosively Formed Projectile). Everyone was ok, a few concussions, but nothing major. On another mission, we were the QRF(Quick Reaction Force) for a sister unit that was hit with an EFP. That day, while I was on a different mission, a Soldier was decapitated, and my Soldiers were on-site to recover the carnage. Another time, in Sadr City, my truck was the lead vehicle in traffic much like New York City, and we hit a local Iraqi and smashed his car and injured him. When he was disgusted with what happened, with the help of my interpreter, he asked who was in charge. When my interpreter told him I was he aggressively approached me and spit in my face. See, women are second-class citizens in Iraq. Forever in time, his face is in my dreams. I have to ask myself, had I made different decisions on the days above, would the outcomes have been different? That is when I realized life is a series of small decisions that cascade over time. I still have trouble in traffic to this very day.
While fighting the fight overseas, our home was under attack. November 5th, 2009 will forever live in infamy in my heart. At my home station, Fort Hood, Texas, our service men and women were attacked by one of our own from the inside. The building where this occurred was the neighbor building to my headquarters. I can see it and smell it to this very day. Thirty innocent Soldiers were injured that day, thirteen dead, one of whom was pregnant. Some of those Soldiers were my friends, but they were all my Brothers and Sisters in Arms. These events make a Veteran ask themselves, why them and not me? Why did God spare me? Everyday, I remember them. And ultimately, we beg God to provide direction in our lives so that we may live on for the dead.
Combat and the effects of combat are a lifelong sentence. However, when I lost one of my best friends and mentors to suicide, that was the tipping point to how I would decide my future. Ferguson taught me how to do land navigation, not to fear being alone, and never to let men in uniform intimidate me. The pain from his own experiences was too much to bear for him, and in 2018 he took his own life. I will never forget his voice and how he regularly reminded me to never lose my sense of urgency.
I tell you these stories not to make you like me, or think I am cool, to fear normal relationships with me, or worse, to find me unapproachable, unfriendable, or unloveable. I am a small slither of a fraction of the 1% that voluntarily served in uniform. Each Veteran has a story, each is powerful, unique, and beautiful, and many are uglier than the next. Mine is quite boring, relatively speaking. There are other Veterans working for Quartet who probably have similar stories. I tell you these stories to remind you what Veterans Day can mean to you, and what it does mean to those who have served. We do not want to be heroes, we want to be good neighbors, sisters, friends, and partners. Hero is a tough word for us to swallow, because each one of us has lost someone close to them. They are the heroes, we are simply, just…still here.
Veterans tend to get all the credit on Veteran’s Day. But as we know, logistics wins wars. And the spouses, parents, partners, and children of Veterans are just as equally deserving of “thank you for your service.” Families are the silent partners behind the scenes, often in the shadows, keeping the homes clean, children clothed and in school, boxes coming in the mail, and bills paid. We would be lost without them and their constant resilience, resolve and support. On this Veteran’s Day, let’s bring them to light.
As a Veteran in conjunction with being an Active Member of the Louisiana National Guard, I am so proud and so blessed to work for Quartet Health, a company on a mission to improve the lives of people with mental health conditions through technology and services. Suffering from diagnosed depression and anxiety related to trauma, I’m inherently driven by the work of Quartet Health to provide people with access to mental health care. Not only does Quartet Health provide a safe space for me to be who I am and share my story without bias, the company is growing quickly, and fully supports and encourages recruiting and retaining the unique and dynamic talent and experiences that Veterans bring. Like the Army, Quartet Health is indeed a family. Every person in the company is valued, needed, and committed to those working to the left and to the right of them. Quartet Health recognizes how the spouses of Service Members/Veterans are just as integral to the success of the mission of the US Forces, they are just as committed to hiring the spouses of Service Members and Veterans. On this Veteran’s Day, I am reminded how blessed I am to be alive and able to write this narrative with Quartet, as friends and compadres of mine will never see that luxury again in this lifetime. As the General Manager of Louisiana, my role is such that I get to work with primary care doctors and mental health practitioners to match patients to care. Thank a Veteran, or at least live out your days as worth fighting for and live a life with gratitude in your heart.
Together, with an open mind, we can chip away at the stigma that surrounds mental health. For a VERY long time in the Military it was taboo to talk about your “feelings.” We were told to suck it up, take a knee, or drink water. Drink water? Right now I could use a whiskey neat! But as a leader, I found myself telling Soldiers to do the same. Suck it up, buttercup. But what is done in darkness, must come to light. I am overwhelmed with positive emotion and joy that the Military is taking steps to improve mental health, promote getting help, and taking steps to prevent suicide. And finally, I am blessed, under Divine Intervention, to have the unique opportunity to work for Quartet Health and be a mouthpiece for ALL, EVERYWHERE, ANYTIME, to get the care they deserve. Let’s begin healing together. #mentalhealthmatters