From the VETERANS series:
Desert Storm, Iraq, U.S. Navy, U.S. Army
Dates of service: Navy: 1988-96; Army: 2008-Present
I went from the pit to the pillar, I went from a house to a car.
-April 2013, Manhattan, NY
“I spent eight years in the Navy. I was an electrical engineer. My role was to service the submarines when they came into port. That was my job at my first station and then I went on ships and serviced the engines on ships.
“I could have went to any branch, but the Navy boot camp seemed like the easiest, so I joined at 17. I had to go back to my grandmother to get permission. When I graduated from high school, and it was almost time to go, I couldn’t leave right away because I only weighed 90 pounds, and you have to weigh 95 pounds in order to go. I didn’t make weight. So for a month, I ate and I ate.
“The physical part was excellent, but me adapting to the whole discipline, yelling at me and different things—you know, I’m a New Yorker, I couldn’t grasp that. So I stayed in trouble, but it was fun to me because I’d never had anyone do that to me. I had to stick my head in the trashcan with the trash in it. I had to get in a sitting position. I had to run in place with my rifle over my head in the rain. It was just to discipline me, but it was good. I went in at 90 pounds, came out 127 pounds: all muscle. They worked me to death, but it was good. I absolutely loved it.
“My first duty station was Kings Bay, Georgia. And that’s where I drove tugboats when submarines would come in, and fix engines. From there, I went to school to become an engineer. So during my first duty station, they sent me away to school at Miami, Florida.
“I went back to Kings Bay, Georgia, did my job; had my first son there at Kings Bay, Georgia. I think I was there for only about a month and I got orders to go to Virginia and I realized I was pregnant again. So now I’m stationed in Virginia and my daughter is born. Still in the military, husband is in the military as well. She was about 6 months old when I got called to Desert Storm.
“I decided to get out of the Navy when Christopher, my youngest one, was born. It took me away from my family. They got separated a lot because my mother would take the oldest two and the youngest two would stay with my husband. It wasn’t large amounts of time, it was just some of the time when both of us had to go away on military duty. There was a lot of times when one of us was not home.
“12 years later, I went back into the military. I worked with a partner who did Maritime Law and across the street was this herbal market. Even though I had a degree in education—from an engineer, to a degree in education, to working at a law firm—I worked at an herbal market where I actually mixed all the herbs. There was a young lady there who was working part time as well and she was active duty in the Army. She would talk to me about the Army every day that we worked together. She would tell me about it. I would say, I came from the Navy and I don’t think I can do it, the physical portion of it. It’s just too hard.
“I literally had five recruiters come see me. And then finally there was one young lady who was prior Navy herself and she just says to me, “Felicia, listen, you just need to do it.” I just sat there, talked to her, I signed the papers, and in the next three days I was sworn in. I just made up my mind.
“I think what stood out for me was going into the Army at the age I went into the army and was able to keep up physically and keep my sanity mentally at the age of 38. At that time, the age limit was 40 something. It’s 34 now. I think that was one of the most difficult times. Going through that and my daughter was in her senior year of high school and my son was away in college. It was rough. I think that was one of the most memorable.
“The other one was just going through a hard time, leaving the Navy and having that break in service and trying to find my way. Because I have such a diverse background, just trying to figure out what Felicia wanted to do and disappointed with myself along with that because I was at an age and didn’t have a set career like a lot of my friends did at a certain time in your life. I didn’t want to just do one thing. I wanted to experience life. I think in just doing that and with that mindset came that life wasn’t always as happy go lucky with me as I was with it.
“In between all of that, it was rough. There were times when all I had to feed my kids was mac and cheese. There were times when stress just literally almost killed me. My kids are successful because of the heartaches that they’ve seen their mother or their father go through. If we didn’t have anything, one thing that I can say I instilled in them was to have morals, values, and integrity. Even in that, they struggled right along with us, and I think that’s why they’re so successful.
“I was homeless for a little while. I lived in my car for maybe about a month or two. It was this Sergeant Major, this command Sergeant Major in the Army that saw me because I was in the military and saw all the stuff that was in my car. One day she saw me, and she said, what is going on? It looks like you’re living out the back of your car. And I looked and I said, I am. I would go to McDonalds and wash up and put on that uniform faithfully. I would put that uniform on and go to drill like there was nothing, and then I would get off of duty and go right back to my car.
“So now I have my core, or I found a place where I want to be. I find it therapeutic to sit and speak with veterans, to tell them what I’ve been through, to tell them experiences that I’ve had. Just talking to them and letting them know, ‘I went from the pit to the pillar, I went from a house to a car.’