‘Facing Stigma’ with Jenna R.

I was the first female in my family to serve and actually went about it in a very non-traditional way. I joined the Ohio Army National Guard as an officer when I was 32. I was divorced with a 9 year old and followed this calling for military life that I had missed when I was younger. My son was my biggest fan. I think he just saw the uniform and allure and was excited for me to start that phase of my life. The support that my son and his father showed me helped give me the push because it was 2008 and the rest of my family gave a lot of pushback knowing I could be deployed. I joined and commissioned as a nurse and once I became board certified in family medicine, I received orders almost right away. I deployed on September 11, 2011 as a nurse practitioner and would stay for a twelve month deployment. We provided all medical coverage for the Shindand Air Base in Afghanistan and then our unit would deploy small teams to other places that needed medical coverage. We had an influx of injuries from battle while we were there. A lot of Afghans also came through, but since we had an Afghan interpreter on the base, we were able to treat patients no matter the nature of the injury or who it was. We were equipped to stabilize and transport from there with a helicopter so patients got the treatment they needed every step of the way. At one point I was sent to a smaller camp to help manage their healthcare. After I arrived back to base, an issue had blown up with the command team over allegations of misconduct. As the Sexual Assault Forensics Examiner (SAFE), I was caught in the middle of everything. I was designated as that person for the whole southwest region of Afghanistan, but never imagined it would happen in my unit.

There are fraternization rules that don’t allow you to bond with anyone who has a lower rank. I started feeling this sense of loneliness while deployed because I was one of the few female officers who had the equivalent rank of our commander. I felt like I didn’t have a “battle buddy” or anyone to lean on while the investigation was going on. Then to compound that, I was responsible for collecting evidence as the Sexual Assault Forensics Examiner. You’re not supposed to be emotionally attached in forensics because your job is to collect the evidence; however, that’s really hard to keep separate when your own unit is being investigated. It was a really ethically confusing time for me. They eventually resolved the investigation and reinstated the command team which then created all kinds of insecurities with what had happened before we had left. It was very difficult returning home because Afghanistan was my first job out of my graduate program so getting back into a normal life routine was hard. I had these feelings of not doing a good job and was also trying to process everything I had experienced over there. The stress of dealing with all those external and internal pressures started to weigh on me so six months after being back, I tried to take my own life. I spent two weeks in the hospital before they discharged me with all kinds of medication and therapy with the VA. I can’t explain the feelings or thoughts at that time but it felt like a hollowness in the center of my chest that gnawed at me and wouldn’t go away. I wasn’t able to even understand that until I was well into therapy. I ended up telling my command about it and they were very supportive. In fact, I actually got more information about how many people in my unit were struggling or had attempted the same thing; 90% of my unit had sought mental health help after we returned. It was wild, but also very reassuring to know I wasn’t alone.

Not long after, I switched from the Ohio Guard to the Nevada Guard to be around family that I was more emotionally connected to. I was able to see a private therapist once a week who was very helpful, effective, and specialized in DBT which is designed for people who haven’t had success with traditional methods. It was the first time I felt something in a long time. I wasn’t sure what it was, but I was feeling something and it felt good to talk about it. I spent two years in Las Vegas and felt really successful about my time there. However, my ideal city to live in was Chicago so I decided to make the move and transfer from the Nevada Guard to the Illinois Army Reserves in 2017. After bouncing around to a few therapists over the first year and a half in Chicago, I finally connected with my therapist now. I did a consultation with Sue and signed up with Headstrong immediately. I’ve come a long way with opening up and I’ve benefitted a lot through the use of EMDR. It’s helped me process some of these traumas I’ve experienced and also helped me get back in touch with the nervous system of my body. I’ve been able to improve the way I communicate, set boundaries, and develop an understanding of who I am in the world and where I belong. I was recently sent to Pennsylvania as part of the COVID-19 crisis assignment and it was great to realize that after all I’ve been through, I’m back in a position of helping others who are going through their own difficult times.

Healing the hidden wounds of war