Thursday, December 17, 2015

Shelby Hadley - Women Veterans: Changing the Definitions of Military Service

Shelby Marie Hadley is a Minnesota Army National Guard Veteran who was deployed twice as an Air Traffic Controller—Bosnia in 2003 and “Operation Iraqi Freedom” in 2008. She is involved in the St. Cloud area Veteran community and serves as Peer Mentor with Wounded Warrior Project and on the advisory board of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Minnesota. Shelby shared her military story by performing in The Telling Project’s play Telling: Minnesota 2015 at the Guthrie Theater. Shelby continues to give back to her community through volunteer work with Veterans service organizations and committees and projects advocating for Veterans, military service members, and their families.

Back in September, I mentioned on social media that I was participating in a 12-mile ruck march for military suicide awareness and prevention. In response to that, I had a friend reach out wanting to participate as well. However Carly is more than just any old friend; she is an Army battle buddy. I served with her in the Army and deployed to Bosnia with her in 2003-2004.

As Carly and I were walking the 12-mile route, she told me that some of her co-workers were surprised to hear that she would be doing this walk because she had never shared with them that she served in the Minnesota Army National Guard. Carly said, “I joined the military to get out of Aitkin. It really wasn’t a big deal”. This made me curious about how other female service members I served with felt about their service.

In 2003 Carly, Jamie, Linnea, and I deployed to Bosnia. We were young women, each with a different story but also the same story. These women are the only ones that know what it feels like to be at that place and time with me and also be a female.

Linnea shared with me, “I’m less comfortable with the whole Veteran thing. I don’t feel right with that title—deployment or not—not when it’s the same title given to my uncle who spent two years in Vietnam.”

When my two youngest children first met Jamie at a birthday party, I wanted to kick myself afterwards because of the way I had introduced her to them. I said, “Kids, this is Jamie, a former co-worker of mine.” I should have said, “Kids, this is my sister-in-arms, and I had the honor to serve and deploy with her while in the military”.

Why did I talk about my military service during that 12-mile ruck march I shared with Carly? For the longest time I had a hard time seeing myself as a Veteran. I imagined, like the community around us, a more typical (male) rendering of a Veteran. I remember not using the word Veteran specifically, and would instead say dismissively that I had served in the military. Even to this day, sometimes I still have to push myself to say, “I’m a Veteran” after two deployments and nine years in the Minnesota Army National Guard. The more I say it out loud, the prouder I feel of my service, and I know in my head and heart that this is a lasting part of my identity.

When we as women Veterans personally struggle with the perception of being a ‘Veteran’ and are unable to identify ourselves as military Veterans, how can we expect others to include us in their definition of Veterans? This is the first step in identifying the stigma we place on ourselves. All of our service looks different, but it is in no way less regardless of if we are men or women. We still served, and I implore women Veterans to be proud of that service and help redefine the perception of a Veteran.

It comes down to the fact that I have a little girl. I want my daughter to hear my story and know that a Veteran can and does look like her mother.

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