For many veterans, a return to civilian life is colored by pretty much the same theme as life in the military: Service.
Take Deb Anthony, for example.
During her six years as a machinist’s mate on the USS L.Y. Spear, a submarine tender, she was the first woman to work in the ship’s machine shop.
Later, during a stint as an auxiliary security force law enforcement officer during a tour in Hawaii, came another new experience: she kept thinking about how much of the trouble her fellow sailors got into could have been by some earlier counselling and support.
So, when she left the Navy, the North Carolina native went off in a new direction — but one shaped by her experience. Anthony went to back to school, wanting to learn how to help people in distress. Six years later, with a master’s degree and a certification as a licensed clinical social worker, she was doing so, back at Naval Station Norfolk.
“Just seeing the problems and the things that happen that with earlier intervention wouldn’t have so I was kind of encouraged to do this,” she said.
One of her first challenges in her new role was pitching in to help support families after the attack on the USS Cole.
Now, at the Fleet and Family Support Center, her work still focuses on people in crisis. It’s sometimes meant being there for families and shipmates when a sailor dies. Sometimes, it means responding when things are so overwhelming that a sailor or family member can’t stop thinking about suicide.
“I decided to start doing this so I could stay close to the military,” she said “I really loved being in the military and I wanted to do something to support it.”
If Anthony went off in a new direction for her bid to support the next generation of sailors, Timothy McKenzie looked to one of the several pieces of expertise he picked up in his 20 years as a Navy aviator.
A pilot who served as a flight instructor, wrangled heavy-lift CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters and airfield operations officer, McKenzie -- T-Mac since his days at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy -- felt he could offer something that can be hard to find in the complex workload of managing an airfield:
A two to three year term as an assistant air operations officer, a post often held by a lieutenant commander reporting to a commander who’s also on a two-to-three posting means learning a lot in a hurry.
But as a veteran who has done the job, and a civilian who isn’t on the usual military revolving door of assignments, McKenzie thinks his current post as assistant air operations officer at Naval Station Norfolk’s Chambers field takes a lot of pressure off active duty colleagues on short-term assignments.
“I feel like I can still support the mission,” he said.
And while Veterans Day is a time for the nation at large to pause and reflect on the service the nation’s veterans have offered over the years, “I get to do that every day,” he said, glancing over at the coat rack in his office hat holds all his old flight jackets.
“It feels like I’m back in the Navy.”
Retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel Kyle Cottrell has volunteered to serve as Hampton Roads and Virginia ambassador for the Military Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.
Like Anthony, the Chesapeake resident has seen big changes for women in the military over the course of her 20 years in active duty and the reserves, which began in 1986. Her daughter, a Marine Corps helicopter pilot, is seeing still more.
“The roles of women in the USMC have expanded since I joined. In the mid-1980s women could not be assigned to combat arms -- infantry, artillery, pilots, tanks, amphibs and combat engineering -- or in units likely to engage in direct combat action," Cottrell said.
But during Desert Storm, commanders in 1st Marine Expeditionary Forces said they needed women in logistics and communications specialties, “the female Marines deployed. And excelled. And continue to,” she said.
She’s hoping the memorial will help tell the stories of women veterans -- including more than 107,000 Virginians. The aim is to share ' stories with visitors to the memorial at the entrance to Arlington,
“So many don’t know it’s there and when they step inside the common sentiment is: ‘I had no idea women did all this,’” she said.
The Army taught Henneh Adjei two things he really wanted to know. One was about how to save lives -- something that he knew he wanted to do, after seeing a close friend bleed to death after a motorcycle accident.
The other was about how to live the American dream -- the ideal that brought him to this country from Ghana, but one felt just a bit out of reach for a new immigrant knowing nobody in a new culture.
Adjei signed up, training as a combat medic -- “it’s like being an EMT, except sometimes you’re the only one there and you’re doing even more,” he said.
The Army sent him to the 7th Transportation Brigade at Fort Eustis, a group that may be about the most deployed bunch of soldiers around. Their job as the “Army’s Navy” includes setting up port facilities and handling ships.
“They travel all over the world ... when they go to certain places and there’s people who need a combat medic they just pull you off the boat to do whatever crazy stuff they need,” he said.
Among other assignments, that meant Adjei was with some of the first soldiers to head to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Adjei tended to people injured by the powerful storm, and cared for many who fell ill with cholera.
Back in Newport News as his enlistment was ending, he signed up for Virginia Commonwealth University’s program in nursing. For the past several months, now as an Army reservist, he’s been making the 70-mile drive every day. It hasn’t been easy for the father of a two-year-old with a wife in the Air Force, but the end is in sight: graduation is next month.
His plan is to take what he’s learned in the Army and at VCU to the Veterans Administration, to care for fellow vets who rely on that system.
“There are just some things you can’t understand if you’re not a veteran,” he said. “I’ve been able to be a success and I think maybe I can help vets be successes, too.”
For Adjei, though, the path to success isn’t over yet. He’s also hoping to take the classes and do the training to become a nurse anesthetist.
That goal, too, comes from his Army active duty days.
“I’d see a wounded soldier coming in, screaming, crying in pain; then the nurse anesthetist steps in and they’re calm, they’re ready. It’s like magic,” he said. “It’s just magical.”
Like Anthony, Peter James' did some security work near the end of his active duty -- a decade in the Navy and more than a dozen in the Air Force.
He found he liked it -- and that was even though his Navy tour, as an engineman responsible for fixing diesel equipment, started with a tour in the Mediterranean that included a side trip to Paris, “a once in a lifetime experience,” for a new sailor whose family had emigrated to New York from Jamaica just a decade earlier.
“Protecting, you know, helping people. I’ve always been a man that enjoyed serving the people, Just to make sure that everybody who comes here just feels welcome, feelr safe,,” he said.
“If I could do my part in whatever capacity ... I’ll take it,” he said.
Dave Ress, 757-247-4535, email@example.com
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