Pride Month: celebrating all who served - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY CULTURE

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

June is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender (LGBT) Pride Month. Both women Veterans and Veterans with LGBT and related identities underuse VA care. That makes now an important time to bring attention to the unique needs of Veterans with LGBT and related identities.

VA proudly welcomes all Veterans. VA’s Women’s Health Services and the LGBT Health Program offer resources that can help.

There are more than two million women Veterans and an estimated one million lesbian, gay and bisexual Veterans in the United States.


Veterans with LGBT and related identities are less likely to seek out routine health care, largely due to fear of discrimination. This can lead to long-term health problems. Examples include a higher risk for mental health issues and suicidal thoughts than their non-LGBT peers.

VA is working to create an environment where Veterans with LGBT or related identities feel comfortable talking openly with providers about sexual orientation, gender identity, and mental and physical health challenges.

Safe to share your information

VA’s health care professionals have been trained to keep your information confidential. It is always safe to share your sexual orientation and gender identity with your provider. This is true, even if you have not come out to family or friends.

Being open with your provider about your identity helps VA offer you the best care possible.

If you are not comfortable speaking with your provider about sexual orientation or gender identity, or you think your provider is uncomfortable with these topics, there are ways VA can help.

Each VA facility has an LGBT Veterans care coordinator (VCC) and Women Veterans Program manager who can help you find a provider to fit your needs. To find your local LGBT VCC or see what support and resources your facility offers, visit https://www.patientcare.va.gov/LGBT/VAFacilities.asp.

Services available

Other VA health care services that may help Veterans with LGBT and related identities include:

  • Hormone treatment
  • Substance use/alcohol treatment
  • Tobacco use treatment
  • Treatment and prevention of sexually transmitted infections/PrEP
  • Intimate partner violence reduction and treatment
  • Heart health
  • Cancer screening, prevention and treatment
  • Help with infertility or family planning

All Veterans should have access to a safe and welcoming environment that takes your unique needs into account. This June and throughout the year, we celebrate and support all who have served.

To learn about health risks and why you should talk to your provider about your sexual orientation identity, birth sex, and self-identified gender identity, visit the fact sheets below:

This article originally appeared on VAntage Point. Follow @DeptVetAffairs on Twitter.

MIGHTY CULTURE

Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard details the importance of the service to the nation

The United States Coast Guardsman will wear multiple hats during their service to this nation. They are an armed force, environmental protector, maritime law enforcer and first responder.

Every single day.


“We have eleven statutory missions that we perform for the country with 42,000 active duty, 6,000 reservists, and 8,000 civilians. We don’t get overtime, we are on duty 24/7 and are subject to the uniform code of military justice. We work a lot of hours to get it done,” shared Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard, Jason Vanderhaden.
Pride Month: celebrating all who served

He continued on sharing the differences between those that serve under the Department of Defense and the USCG. He explained that those under DOD leave to fight, and when they get home, they have a chance to recharge and retrain. That’s not the case for those in the USCG. When a ship returns home from deployment, there are continual repairs and work that doesn’t stop. Then – it redeploys again, to continue serving the mission.

The defense readiness aspect of the USCG is unique. They have always had a respected partnership with the United States Navy and have fought in every major war since their inception on Aug. 4, 1790. They are overseas even now, serving in the ongoing middle eastern conflict. It may surprise the public to learn that they are the nations oldest continuing seagoing service.

“I want to paint the picture that we have a very challenging mission set, but at the same time, we do it well,” shared Vanderhaden. He continued on saying that it’s almost as though coasties thrive on that environment, which is evidenced in the retention rate.

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

It may surprise people to learn that the USCG has an absolutely vital role in America’s anti-terrorism and counter-terrorism battle. As a matter of fact, they are on the front lines of it. On any given day, they are enforcing security zones, conducting law enforcement boardings, and working to detect weapons of mass destruction.

They are also the nation’s first line of defense against drugs entering the country. The USCG’s drug interdictions account for over half of the total seizures of cocaine in the United States.

While patrolling and protecting America, they are also continually serving her water and its marine inhabitants. They partner with multiple organizations and groups to protect the environment. One of the core missions of the USCG involves protecting endangered marine species, stopping unauthorized ocean dumping, and preventing oil or chemical spills.

“You’ll go a lot of places where people don’t know what the Coast Guard does, that’s for sure. We also struggle a little bit because people think they can’t join the Coast Guard because they don’t swim well. If you are in the water – something is probably wrong,” said Vanderhaden with a laugh. This is because there is truly only one rating or MOS where they have to get into the water, and that is the aviation survival technician, most commonly known as the rescue swimmer.

The USCG often conducts search and rescues in extreme weather conditions. This mission involves multi-mission stations, cutters, aircraft, and boats that are all linked by communication networks. Although public references to movies like The Guardian cause eye rolls within the USCG community; it did bring rescue swimming to a higher level of respect within the public. The rescue swimmer motto should give you goosebumps: “so that others may live.”

You’d think that recruiting potential coasties would be easy with the continuous news coverage and more visibility with certain movies, but it isn’t. Vanderhaden shared that only a small percentage of the population will actually qualify to serve in the armed forces, and getting the word out about the USCG is still very challenging. This is because they do not have the recruiting budgets that the DOD has, so you’ll almost never see a USCG commercial. “We rely on people finding us,” said Vanderhaden.

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

With the world currently being consumed with the coronavirus or COVID-19 spread, Vanderhaden was asked about the USCG’s response and continuing of its missions during the pandemic. “We still have the service that we have to provide to the nation…. We are still doing our job and we have to, we are just taking more precautions,” he shared. There is no stand down for all of the vital operations of the USCG. He continued on saying, “We do need to make sure that we are always ready to respond, and we will continue to do that.”

Their core values are honor, respect, and devotion to duty. These values guide them in all they do, every single day. They willingly don the multiple hats and are prepared to sacrifice it all in the name of preserving this nation. That’s the United States Coast Guard, always ready.

To learn more about the Coast Guard and their missions, click here.

MIGHTY CULTURE

How these liaisons bridge gap between Congress and Air Force

In one wing, there are 435. On the other, there are 100. Luckily, this isn’t referring to a severe weight imbalance detrimental to an aircraft’s flight. These are the number of appointed individuals responsible for making the nation’s laws on Capitol Hill and the people who some Air Force legislative liaisons and fellows engage with to ensure continued legislative support for national security.

The legislative liaison and fellowship programs are designed to provide service members opportunities to improve understanding and knowledge of the functions and operations of the legislative branch and how it impacts the military.

According to Title 5, U.S. Code Section 7102 and Title 10, U.S. Code Section 1034, United States Air Force personnel have the legal right to petition and furnish information to or communicate with Congress.


“It is our responsibility to truly understand the intersection of politics and policy as members of an apolitical organization,” said Maj. Gen. Steven L. Basham, former director for Secretary of the Air Force legislative liaison, who is now the deputy commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe and Africa Command. “We are not only the Air Force liaison to Congress, but we are also liaisons for Congress to the rest of the Air Force.”

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

Lt. Col. Joe Wall, deputy chief of the Senate Air Force Liaison Office, salutes a staff vehicle to welcome Gen. David Goldfein, U.S. Air Force chief of staff, before a posture hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee at Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., April 4, 2019.

(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Marianique Santos)

Basham says that individuals selected to become legislative liaisons are intuitive, broad and flexible thinkers. Despite donning a suit or business attire during their time on the Hill, aspiring liaisons or fellows are required to have exceptional professional bearing and appearance, exceptional organizational skills, performance and knowledge of current events in national security affairs and international relations are also desired.

“We bring phenomenal people into this program,” Basham said. “As a matter of fact, we want individuals who are experts in their career field who have the ability to look across the entire United States Air Force. When we’re working with Congress or a staff member, they don’t see a bomber pilot or a logistician; they see us as a United States Air Force officer or civilian who is an expert across all fields.”

According to Brig. Gen. Trent H. Edwards, budget operations and personnel director for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Financial Management and Comptroller, the opportunity to serve as a legislative liaison and then as a legislative fellow to a member of congress provided him valuable experience in understanding how the government and democracy work. His time working at the Hill “left an indelible impression” in his mind.

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

Maj. Michael Gutierrez, Senate Air Force Liaison Office action officer, and Col. Caroline Miller, chief of the Senate Air Force Liaison Office, corresponds with legislators in preparation for a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing at the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., April 3, 2019.

(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Marianique Santos)

“As a squadron, group and wing commander, I frequently relied on my understanding of the legislative process to help inform my bosses and teammates on how they could positively affect their mission through the right congressional engagement at the right time,” he said. “I also left the experience with a keen understanding of the importance of relationships, communication and collaboration. Those lessons serve me well today, and I share them with younger officers every chance I get.”

Airmen working on the Hill come from diverse career backgrounds. Historically, the liaison and fellowship programs were only open to officers but have opened to senior noncommissioned officers and civilians in recent years. Typical responsibilities of fellows include assisting with the drafting of legislation, floor debate preparation, planning and analysis of public policy and serving as congressional liaisons to constituents and industry. Fellows are required to come back to serve as legislative liaisons later on in their careers and into positions where they can utilize their acquired knowledge of the legislative process.

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

Maj. Christopher D. Ryan, Senate Air Force Liaison Office action officer, discuss Air Force inforamation with Dan S. Dunham, military legislative assistant to U.S. Senator Deb Fischer from Nebraska, at the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., April 3, 2019.

(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Marianique Santos)

Col. Caroline Miller, chief of the Senate Legislative Liaison Office,said the first step to being a legislative liaison is making sure that the liaison understands the chief of staff and the secretary of the Air Force’s vision and priorities. As members of the Senate legislative liaisons, she and her team work primarily with the Senate Armed Services Committee and its members, as well as any members of the Senate who have Air Force equity. Along with preparing senior leaders for hearings or meetings with legislators, they provide members of Congress and their staff information that helps in their understanding of current Air Force operations and programs.

“I wish I knew what I know now from a legislative perspective when I was a wing commander because I didn’t understand the power of the congressional body back then,” she said. “Every installation has challenges. Every installation has aging infrastructure. Every installation has lots of different things that they’re working through, and I did not engage with my local congressional district as much as I would have if I had I been up here and understood that (our representatives) really do want to help.”

Dan S. Dunham, a military legislative assistant who works for U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska, said the legislative liaisons are who they “turn to first” whenever they have Air Force-related questions – may it be on budgets, programs or operations.

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

Gen. David Goldfein, U.S. Air Force chief of staff, deliver his opening statements during a posture hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee at Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., April 4, 2019.

(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Marianique Santos)

“Air Force and Congress can be a tall order – both sides have different chains of command and different constituencies to which they are answerable,” he said. “That can significantly increase the risk of miscommunication. The legislative liaison fills a critical role in bridging that gap and they are frequently the ones we rely on to be the primary facilitator for getting answers and information for our bosses.”

Along with having constant interaction with the highest echelons of Air Force leadership and the key decision makers, due to the sensitive nature of information exchange at this level, legislative liaisons must be capable of thinking on their feet and making informed decisions.

“We bring individuals in who sometimes have to make the call when talking with the staff on what information they should provide,” Basham said. “I think the level of trust they have for their senior leaders having their back when they make that call is invaluable.”

This article originally appeared on Airman Magazine. Follow @AirmanMagazine on Twitter.

MIGHTY CULTURE

The 13 funniest military memes for the week of February 15th

Ah, another Valentine’s Day has come and gone. By law of averages, at least a few people somewhere in the military spent a nice evening with the person they genuinely love. The rest of us are in the field, deployed, or stationed god-knows-how-far away from our beloved.

Sure, sure. Many of those in the military marry extremely young and the spouse is often quick to put eighty-seven bumper stickers on the minivan saying they have the hardest job in the military… But on Valentine’s Day, we can let them pretend being bored, worried, and lonesome during a deployment is more difficult than serving as a nuclear submarine’s engine mechanic. After all, military spouses do put up with a lot of our sh*t, so one day with an inflated ego is fine.

Anyways. Knowing the average memer is probably stuck in the barracks and taking Hooter’s up on their order of free buffalo wings for single people, here’re some memes to take your mind off the crippling loneliness. Enjoy!


Pride Month: celebrating all who served

(Meme via Private News Network)

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

(Meme via Infantry Follow Me)

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

​(Meme via Decelerate Your Life)

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

(Meme via Army as F*ck)

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

(Comic via The Claw of Knowledge)

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

(Meme via Broken and Unreadable)

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

(Meme via Pop Smoke)

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

(Meme via The Salty Soldier)

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

(Meme via On the Minute Memes)

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

(Meme via Air Force amn/nco/snco)

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

(Meme via Sh*t My LPO Says)

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

(Meme via Valhalla Wear)

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

(Meme via Door Kickers Inc.)

MIGHTY CULTURE

Plastic Army set will finally include women and military working dogs

At the end of 2019, BMC Toys responded to 6-year-old Vivian Lord’s inquiry as to why there are only green Army men by designing some green Army women with 15 different poses. Now the toy designer is expanding the set to include military working dogs and their handlers, as well.

“[Please] can you make army girls that look like women,” Vivian wrote. “I would play with them every day and my [friends] would [too]!”

Jeff Imel, the owner of the Pennsylvania toy company, launched a Kickstarter campaign with a simple premise: “Customers asked for Plastic Army Women. The story went viral. So, now I’m making them.”


BMC Toys designed figures like “Pathfinder Captain” and “Standing Rifleman” among many others. The original 24-piece set included:

  • Pathfinder Captain
  • Standing Rifleman
  • Kneeling Rifleman
  • Prone Sniper
  • Grenadier
  • Bazooka Operator

The campaign was such a success that BMC Toys unlocked stretch goals that upgraded the set to 36 figures in with six additional poses:

  • Running Rifleman
  • Combat Medic
  • Low-Crawl Rifleman
  • Radio Operator
  • Wounded Soldier
  • Light Machine Gunner

By Dec. 17, 2019, even more stretch goals had been unlocked, which added the Medical Team and the K9 Team to the set.

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

“Why do you not make Girl army men[?] My [friend’s] mom is in the army [too]!” wrote Vivian, voicing the concerns that many veterans have asked over the years. Introducing young girls to military toys that include them will help shape their ideas of what they can achieve in their lives.

BMC Toys recognized this fact and set to work, hiring a sculptor for their first prototype.

The BMC Female Combat Soldiers, which are marketed as “real American Made plastic heroes, meant to be set up, knocked down, picked up and played with for years to come” are in development for production and will become available in October 2020.

MIGHTY CULTURE

Watch: A National Guard Chaplain activated in Los Angeles shares his story

Over the last month, the United States (and parts of the world) erupted in protests after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmuad Abery. While their deaths drew the ire of many Americans, they set off an angry and passionate reaction to the bigger problem of police brutality and systemic racism.

Unfortunately, protests can be marred by people taking advantage and the marches that have occurred in all 50 states have seen some people take to rioting and looting. While the vast majority of protests have been peaceful, the magnitude of people on the street and looting caused some states to activate their respective National Guard units.


Director and Army Veteran Robert Ham was able to link up with National Guard Chaplain Major Nathan Graeser who was part of a California National Guard Unit that was assigned to downtown Los Angeles. With the noise of protestors in the background demanding reform of police and the end of the systemic racism that plagues this country, Graeser talked about why the National Guard was there and the mood of the troops. When asked about the atmosphere in the area Graeser said, “Seeing this today, I kept thinking to myself… this is what makes America great.”

Mighty Talks | Chaplain Graeser

vimeo.com

In addition to being an Army Chaplain in the California National Guard, Nathan is also a social worker. He is an expert on programs and policies that support service members transitioning out of the military. Nathan is an advocate for veterans and leads multiple veteran initiatives in Los Angeles. He has spent thousands of hours counseling veterans and their families to deal with the challenges of service and returning home.

Graeser talks about the disconnections we have with one another, exacerbated by COVID-19 and how those disconnections flared up in the wake of these deaths. He knows, because he sees the same disconnection with his soldiers and with veterans as they themselves struggle to connect to the community they took an oath to serve.

But, Graeser said he sees the similarities between the young soldiers and young protesters, “These 19 year olds,” referring to the guardsmen, he said, “They are thoughtful, they are kind, even their interaction with the looters is as gentle as can possibly be.”

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

While the riots have been waning, the cries for action have not. What does the future hold for the rest of 2020 and beyond? We can only guess at this time.

But there is hope in what Graeser sees.

“We are out here to see what the next chapter is,” he shared. “One thing I know is wherever we go, we are going to need everybody.”

MIGHTY CULTURE

The Shooter: How One of America’s Top Combat Photographers Lost Her Way and Found It Serving Veterans

On a recent warm fall afternoon in Charleston, South Carolina, Stacy Pearsall struggled to wind herself down from the daily bustle of ranch life. Flustered from her regular stream of chores and nursing a broken hand for which she recently underwent surgery, the retired Air Force combat photographer fumbled briefly with her phone as she settled into a video-chat interview with Coffee or Die Magazine

Constant motion is Pearsall’s preferred state of being. A few weeks before she was trampled by one of the rare Brabant draft horses she cares for, another horse kicked her in the head; fortunately, she was wearing a helmet. Even after multiple combat deployments left her with a traumatic brain injury and significant spine and nerve damage, she’s never quite figured out how to listen to her body, slow down, and generally behave like a person with actual physical limitations. 

“She’s about as stubborn as one of her donkeys,” says Pearsall’s husband, retired Master Sgt. Andy Dunaway, with a chuckle.  

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Staff Sgt. Stacy Pearsall documents combat operations with the 1st Cavalry Division, 12th Infantry Regiment, in Khalis, Iraq, on Feb. 21, 2007. Photo by Andy Dunaway.

Pearsall’s unflinching resolve is a characteristic she habituated early in her career as she fought to earn her place among the military’s best photojournalists at the Air Force’s elite 1st Combat Camera Squadron, where she carved out a legacy of extraordinary, trailblazing service as one of the best shooters in the Department of Defense. 

“I spent my entire career trying to tough everything out,” Pearsall says. “I never wanted to be the one who reflected badly on women. I always had this attitude that I wouldn’t let people in and let people know how bad things were.” 

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Pearsall in Iraq in 2007. Photo courtesy of Stacy L. Pearsall.

After spending her first four years on active duty processing photos from U-2 surveillance aircraft, Pearsall, whose family’s tradition of military service can be traced back to the Revolutionary War, applied for a spot at 1st Combat Camera, where she says “somebody typically had to die or retire” for a spot to open up. When a former supervisor was assigned to the unit, he encouraged Pearsall to apply, and after a rigorous screening process, she was accepted and joined the unit in 2002.  

“I actually wasn’t a very good photographer back then, but I was a hard worker,” Pearsall says. “There was absolutely a ‘good old boys’ climate, so all I could do was earn respect through my work.”  

Pearsall’s husband served at the squadron from 2002 to 2010. 

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Pearsall and Dunaway on active duty in 2009. Photo courtesy of Stacy L. Pearsall.

“We supported a lot of tier 1 missions and taskings that were only open to men,” Dunaway says. “Some men at the time definitely viewed women as not necessary or less capable.”  

Pearsall says she lost count of how many times she was told she couldn’t do an assignment because the unit wanted a man. But as she navigated an often overtly misogynistic culture, she was also exposed to the best training and equipment the military had to offer and a pool of incredibly talented and experienced photographers — many of whom rewarded her determination and work ethic with invaluable mentorship.  

“Stacy was always out on assignment or looking for something to photograph,” Dunaway says. “She was always out experimenting with the camera, working to get better, and people noticed that.”  

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Pearsall hired a National Guard soldier in this photo from a commercial photo shoot for a body armor company. Photo by Stacy L. Pearsall.

Pearsall’s work ethic earned her a combat deployment to Iraq in late 2003, and the photos she made during her first Iraq tour earned her top honors in the National Press Photographer Association’s 2003 Military Photographer of the Year (MILPHOG) competition, making her the second woman to ever win the prestigious title.  

Pearsall was exposed to combat action several times, including an incident in which the HMMWV she was riding in hit a bomb. Her service during that deployment earned Pearsall an Air Force Commendation Medal for valor while documenting combat operations. 

“I don’t know why anyone earns a medal for that,” Pearsall says, looking down uncomfortably for a moment and processing. “I think it was for continuing to document even when shit went sideways — for doing my job. I look back and think how ludicrous it is to get a medal for doing your job.” 

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US Air Force medical personnel transfer a wounded soldier, who was just struck by an improvised explosive device, from an ambulance to a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft in Baghdad, Iraq, on June 22, 2003. Photo by Stacy L. Pearsall.

After returning from Iraq, she earned the privilege of attending the Pentagon’s Military Photojournalism program at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications in 2004. The yearlong course of study at one of the country’s best journalism schools is the Department of Defense’s most advanced photography course. Only a handful of Air Force members are selected annually, and the service gives its graduates the special designation of “PJ,” or photojournalist.    

Dunaway says it was a rare feat for a squadron member to win MILPHOG without first attending the MPJ program, and after excelling at Syracuse, Pearsall was afforded more opportunities to prove herself among her peers. 

She ultimately deployed to 41 countries, supporting humanitarian relief missions, special operations forces, combat, and other operations. Her images were used by the president, secretary of defense, and Joint Chiefs of Staff to make informed decisions about military operations.

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Casablanca, Morocco, June 10, 2010. Photo by Stacy L. Pearsall.

In 2007, Pearsall was again named Military Photographer of the Year, making her the first and only woman in American history to win the title twice. Her portfolio consisted mostly of images from her second Iraq deployment, and Pearsall also took home top honors in numerous individual categories of the competition, including Combat Photography, Portrait, Pictorial, and Photo Story.  

But just as Pearsall appeared to be hitting her professional stride, beneath the surface, she was beginning to break. She had suffered another improvised explosive device blast in Iraq and lived through a bloody ambush during which she was knocked off her feet while rushing to aid a gravely wounded soldier. Her neck slammed into the edge of an ICV Stryker ramp, aggravating the cervical spine trauma she suffered on her first combat deployment. With adrenaline surging through her, Pearsall jumped up and dragged the wounded soldier out of the street and into the Stryker before pinching closed a severed artery in his neck until a medic arrived.

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US and Iraqi soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 5th Division, conduct a cordon and search for insurgents and weapons caches in Chubinait, Iraq, on Feb. 3, 2007. Photo by Stacy L. Pearsall.

Recalling the ambush, she suddenly stops and goes quiet for several moments. She turns away from the camera, trying to suppress the anguished feelings that always flood back when she tells the story. Gathering herself after several moments, she says, “I just try not to live in that moment too much.”

In 2011, Pearsall shared the whole story on the PBS NewsHour. 

It’s not just the trauma of that day’s violence and death that haunts Pearsall. It was, after all, just one of the many intense combat actions she lived through and documented on that deployment, earning a Bronze Star in the process. The thing that seems to pain Pearsall most about the ambush is that she pinpoints the injury she suffered that day as “the beginning of the end” of her military career. 

“I got banged up a lot on that deployment,” she says. “But I had always operated under the ideology that if I wasn’t missing a limb and I could see and had a pulse, I should just keep working.”

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Members of the US Army, Military Transition Team, and Iraqi army, 4th Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 5th Division, conducted a three-day raid during Operation Brown Hawk in Tahrir, Iraq, on Feb. 27, 2007. The purpose of Operation Brown Hawk was to eliminate Tahrir as an operating base for improvised explosive device building cells and key leaders of the al-Qaeda forces in Iraq. Photo by Stacy L. Pearsall.

Soon after suffering the neck trauma, she started having bad side effects from nerve damage. She often found it difficult to hold her camera or other objects as neurological tremors would sometimes involuntarily release her grip on items. The bomb blast from Pearsall’s first deployment had ruptured her eardrum, and the vertigo she suffered from inner-ear damage worsened after the ambush in 2007.  

After a friend convinced Pearsall to seek medical treatment in Iraq, a doctor hooked her up to an electrical stimulation device, hoping to alleviate some of her pain. 

When the current contracted the muscles in her neck, Pearsall fell backward, nearly passing out from the jolt of excruciating pain. After ordering and reviewing X-rays for Pearsall, the doctor explained the severity of her condition:  

“He’s like, ‘I don’t know how to tell you this, Sgt. Pearsall, but you’ve got to go to Balad [Air Base] today. The chopper leaves in four hours. Go pack your shit.’” 

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As the sky turns ominous, Army Sgt. Kyle Ellison searches the roof of a local’s house for weapons during an assault against anti-Iraqi forces in Buhriz, Iraq, on April 11, 2007. Photo by Stacy L. Pearsall.

Pearsall expected to get a CAT scan and return within 24 hours. Instead, doctors told her she had a cervical spine trauma and wearing a Kevlar helmet and body armor every day was no longer an option without treatment and recovery.  

“They wanted to send me to Germany for surgery right away,” she says. “And I was like, ‘No, not doing that.’”

Pearsall never returned to combat. She was sent back to Charleston for long-term nonsurgical treatment. Ultimately, she had to endure a soul-crushing process that required her to go before a medical review board. 

“I remember when I was going through that,” Pearsall recalls, “I had an officer in my unit look me in the eye and say, ‘You weren’t wounded.’ The whole process was awful, and after going through all of that, I thought about suicide. It was not a good place to be.” 

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US Air Force Security Forces at Lackland Air Force Base. Photo by Stacy L. Pearsall.

After she was medically retired, Pearsall found herself making frequent trips to the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center in Charleston. As she carried a head full of bad memories, remorse, and shame to her appointments, she felt alienated and isolated by the constant assumptions by male veterans and staff that she was a dependent rather than a combat veteran. 

“In our society, a lot of people, especially older veterans, still don’t associate women with being military veterans,” Dunaway says. “They look at women as a support function, or as being married to a service member.” 

Pearsall says at the VA hospital, she was frequently asked if she was bringing her father or husband for a doctor’s appointment. On one especially irritating occasion, the Red Cross was passing out cookies and sodas, and when Pearsall reached for some, her hand was slapped away. The cookies were for veterans only, they told her.

“That really made me resentful and bitter,” she says. “I thought everyone was prejudiced against me.”

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Retired Army Maj. Ron DeMello served in the infantry and Special Forces from 1957 to 1978. Photo by Stacy L. Pearsall.

In 2008, Pearsall was waiting to see a neurologist at the hospital when an Army veteran from World War II named Mickey Dorsey sat down next to her and changed her life forever.

“I could see him staring at me, and I was getting really pissed,” she says. “When I turned and asked if there was something I could do for him, I found out he was a volunteer at the VA, and he could see that I was struggling and was just looking to help me.”

Pearsall says as she and Dorsey forged a friendship, he inspired her to find a new purpose — another way to serve. She says she set out to honor and thank other veterans with “the only gift I had worth giving, my photography.” 

She started bringing her camera to appointments and making portraits of some of the veterans she’d meet. After doctors told her she shouldn’t carry anything more than 5 pounds or stand for long periods, she started bringing a backdrop and lights — stubborn and determined as ever. 

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Jewish-American veteran Benjamin D. Cooper served as a combat medic for three years in World War II. Photo courtesy of Stacy L. Pearsall.

The Veterans Portrait Project was born. 

That first year Pearsall photographed 100 veterans, and 88 of the portraits were curated for a permanent exhibition in the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center’s Hall of Heroes. 

“Suddenly I found myself enjoying what I was doing, and it gave me a sense of purpose,” she says. “It showed me that I could serve outside of a uniform — that I could serve my fellow veterans by helping to challenge people’s perceptions and educate the general public and even the veteran community about who veterans are.” 

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Retired Marine Lt. Col. James Sfayer, left, served as an infantry and recon officer from 1972 to 1994 and is a Desert Shield/Storm veteran. Retired Maj. Henry “Duke” Boswell, right, is a World War II and Korean War veteran. He successfully completed combat jumps into Sicily, Italy; Normandy; and Holland. Photos by Stacy L. Pearsall for the Veterans Portrait Project.

She set a goal to photograph veterans at other VA facilities and in the nearby area. Soon she was holding exhibitions — some permanent and some pop-up — all over the country. She would curate a number of portraits and invite political leaders, local business owners, and community members to engage in a dialogue with the veterans she photographed. 

Since taking her first portrait in late 2008, Pearsall has traveled coast to coast with the VPP, covering 82 cities in all 50 states. She has documented more than 8,500 veterans in more than 189 engagements. Each veteran receives a complimentary, high-resolution portrait that they can share with friends and family. Their portraits and stories are also included in national printed exhibitions, showcased in video productions, and shared via social media, ensuring their contributions to American military history are never lost.

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Retired Army Col. Sharon A. Singleton, left, served as a nurse from 1985 to 2010 and is a Desert Shield/Storm veteran. Philip George, a Mohawk Native American, served as an Army infantryman from 2009 to 2013 and deployed to Afghanistan twice. Photos by Stacy L. Pearsall for the Veterans Portrait Project.

Pearsall’s portraits are displayed at the National Veterans Memorial Museum in Columbus, Ohio, the Pentagon, the Military Service Memorial for America at Arlington National Cemetery, and myriad locations all over the country. 

‘They’re everywhere,” she says proudly.

Pearsall says the VPP collection represents the more than 22 million military veterans in the United States. 

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Army 1st Sgt. Willie S. Grimes, left, served from 1995 to 2012 and deployed to Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq. Service dog Daisy sits with her veteran, former Army Staff Sgt. Robert “Bobby” Henline, also known as the “Well Done Comedian.” Photos by Stacy L. Pearsall for the Veterans Portrait Project.

“They’re young and old, male and female. They come from all walks of life and have varied religious beliefs, levels of education and racial ethnicity,” she says on the VPP website. “What unites them all is their service. It’s a bond that cannot be broken, and I’m proud to be one of them.”

Pearsall says she remains passionately devoted to teaching photography and supporting photographers of every skill level. From 2009 to 2013, she owned and operated the Charleston Center for Photography, a photography education institution and studio. She is a Nikon Ambassador, an educator, military consultant, public speaker, veteran advocate, and author of two books — Shooter: Combat from Behind the Camera and A Photojournalist’s Field Guide: In the Trenches with Combat Photographer Stacy Pearsall. She also produces her own podcast and will soon produce a TV show for PBS.  

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Marilyn “Mickey” Cogswell, left, enlisted in the Marine Corps at 18 alongside a few high school girlfriends and served one enlistment in the early 1950s. Retired Army 1st Sgt. Eugene D. Smith enlisted in 1966 at the height of the Vietnam War and retired in 1992. Photos by Stacy L. Pearsall for the Veterans Portrait Project.

Dunaway says his wife’s work sustains and fulfills her, but most people don’t see that it takes a lot out of her, too. As Pearsall points out, “The hard part for me is I have constant reminders in my pictures.”

“Every time she does a speech or engagement, it brings her PTSD back,” Dunaway says. “But Charlie helps with that.”

Charlie is Pearsall’s service dog. He helps her deal with everything from seizures to post-traumatic stress, hearing and mobility support, and nightmare interruptions.

“Every day is a conscious decision to be present,” Pearsall says. “The emotional stuff that you carry with you — it’s not something you ever get over. It’s just something you learn to carry and how heavy you allow that burden to be.” 

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Pearsall with service dog Charlie. Photo courtesy of Stacy L. Pearsall.

With that, Pearsall looks at her watch, and as the interview winds down, she worries aloud that her sincerity and vulnerability might come off “bitter and ugly.” She stresses that her military experience was “incredible on so many levels,” and that she would do it all over again if given the choice. 

“I think the military has come a long way,” she says. “The fact that combat arms and special operations roles are now open to women is pretty extraordinary. More women are filling important leadership roles at even the highest levels of the Air Force, and that’s incredible too. So I look at all of that progress, and I am honored to have been part of the growth and to have had the opportunity to experience and to document the history that unfolded while I was in the service.”

And with that, Stacy Pearsall gets back to work. 

This article originally appeared on Coffee or Die. Follow @CoffeeOrDieMag on Twitter.

MIGHTY CULTURE

Women join ranks of cavalry scouts

Every soldier in the Nebraska Army National Guard has a story: the reasons why they joined the military, picked their particular military occupational specialty (MOS) job, or serve in their military unit of choice.

For two soldiers serving in the Nebraska Army National Guard’s Troop B, 1-134th Cavalry, the stories are particularly different than those around them. That’s because Sgt. Nicole Havlovic and Sgt. Danielle Martin are two of only a very few women serving in the Nebraska cavalry squadron. In fact, the two Nebraskans are one of only a few women in the nation who have successfully graduated from the Army’s tough combat arms MOS school and earned the title of “cavalry scout.”

Havlovic originally joined the Nebraska Army National Guard as a water treatment specialist. However, after serving for six years, she decided to leave the Guard for a year. “I got out because I was bored,” Havlovic said. “I really didn’t have any guidance about what I could do or what the possibilities were. I wanted to do something different and fun and be out there training.”


It was that desire to do something different that drove Havlovic to join the Nebraska Army Guard cavalry squadron. “I felt like it would be a really good fit. I’m pretty outdoorsy and this — being out in the field — doesn’t bother me at all,” Havlovic said.

Sgt. Danielle Martin’s route to being a cavalry scout was not a direct one, either.

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

Sgt. Danielle Martin approaches the finish of a ruck march during the 1-134th Cavalry Squadron’s spur ride during annual training in the Republic of Korea June 18, 2019.

(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Anna Pongo)

“I’ve always wanted to go into combat arms,” Martin said. “It really was a year before joining the military that I knew combat arms was what I wanted to do. However, I was still junior enlisted and so I really couldn’t do much about it.”

The last restrictions against women serving in combat roles were lifted in 2013. However, Army regulations specified that units were first required to have two female cavalry scouts in leadership positions before other female soldiers would be allowed to join their ranks. This made integrating junior-ranking women into the units all that much more difficult.

So, Martin began her career in the Nebraska Army National Guard as an automated logistical specialist before joining a military police unit. After rising to the rank of sergeant, Martin said she finally saw a way to reach her combat arms goal.

“It was already on my radar that I had just gotten my E-5 [sergeant] and I wanted to go to 19-Delta [cavalry scout] school,” Martin said.

Both Sergeants attended a cavalry scout reclassification school, an Army school designed to train soldiers from other MOS in the skills needed to become operational cavalry scouts. Martin attended the November reclassification course in Boise, Idaho. After completing the course, she reported to the Mead, Nebraska-based Troop B this past January.

Martin said the reception she received from her new unit let her know that they respected her newly-earned skills. It wasn’t about changing who anyone was, she said, but having a mutual respect between soldiers.

“They don’t treat me any differently just because I’m female,” said Martin. “I’m one of the guys and I think it needs to be that way… I’m not coming in here to change them. I’m coming in here because I know I can physically and mentally handle it, and I want to do the job.”

Havlovic attended the cavalry scout transition course in Smyrna, Tennessee, and reported to Troop B in April 2019. She said her fellow soldiers don’t treat her differently than any other member of the unit.

“They really don’t treat me any differently,” Havlovic said. “I don’t expect them to…I expect them to believe that they can trust me with the mission and what we have to do and be able to keep up and be trustworthy and dependable…Everyone has actually been really welcoming to me.”

With Havlovic and Martin completing their transition courses, Nebraska National Guard’s 1-134th Cavalry Squadron became the ninth Army National Guard unit, fourth Cavalry Troop and second Infantry Brigade Combat Team Cavalry Troop to be opened for junior enlisted female cavalry scouts.

1st Sgt. Andrew Filips, Troop B’s senior enlisted soldier, has spent 15 years in the squadron. He said the change of policy wasn’t an issue.

“What it really comes down to is that we’re a combat arms unit and there’s only one standard,” Filips said. “You either perform or you leave. You either make the cut or there are other units for you to go to.”

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

Nebraska National Guard Soldiers with the 1-134th Cavalry Squadron receive certificates and silver spurs after successful completion of a spur ride during annual training in the Republic of Korea June 21, 2019.

(U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Anna Pongo)

1st Sgt. Christopher Marcello of Grand Island’s Troop A, 1-134th Cavalry Squadron, is a 22-year veteran of the cavalry squadron. He has also been a member of the Grand Island Police Department for six years. He echoed Filips’ thoughts.

“I work with women every day as a police officer and that’s a tough job where you can get punched in the face, or shot or beat up and you have women doing that every day. So combat arms isn’t any different,” Marcello said. “You have to have the right fit. It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman. It doesn’t matter. You have to be the right kind of person to be a scout.”

The Nebraska Army National Guard’s 1-134th Cavalry Squadron is part of the larger 39th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, which is headquartered in Arkansas. The brigade is responsible for providing training and readiness oversight of its subordinate units. According to Command Sgt. Maj. Gregory White, the 39th IBCT senior enlisted leader, the way the brigade finds the right soldiers for their difficult job has changed from looking at who can physically do it to those who want to do it.

White also said that women who hold a combat arms MOS are the best representatives to recruit other women into the field.

White spoke with Martin during a visit to B Troop’s recent annual training in the Republic of Korea. They both agreed the focus should be on reaching out to women who want the challenge of serving in combat arms positions, and once they do, give them the tools they need to become advocates.

“Having her [Martin] talk to them is going to be so much better than a guy who has been in for 30 years,” White said. “A 50-year-old man talking to these young women just is not going to reach them in the same way as when she talks to them.”

Filips says the physical demands are not the only aspect of combat arms that new recruits need to consider. The relatively demanding training pace also makes combat arms units different. Troop B regularly trains in the field and spends most drill weekends training throughout the night. That is often one of the bigger reasons why some soldiers eventually choose to transfer into the squadron.

“If you want to come into the Guard and feel like this is what I want to do; (that) I want to… be awesome and be the baddest dudes and wear the cool hats and do all that, then yes go for it,” said Filips. “But if you are ‘I want to try this because it would be neat’, there’s other places to be neat. Come here because this is what you always wanted to do in life. You have to want it.”

Marcello seconded those comments, adding that Troop A is willing to let soldiers — male or female — try being a cavalry scout for their drill weekend.

“We’re more than happy to let people come in, try it out and if it doesn’t work for you, we get it,” he said. “It doesn’t have anything to do with gender, doesn’t have anything to do with sex; it has to do with can you do the job.”

Both Havlovic and Martin said they realize they are now mentors and role models for those around them. They are also quick to encourage other soldiers to give it a try.

“It’s definitely something I would sit down, explain to them and educate them on,” said Havlovic, who now works for the state recruiting office.

“It’s not for everybody. It really isn’t. I don’t believe that just because combat arms has been opened up to females mean that all females belong here. But if you can do it, then do it.”

This article originally appeared on United States Army. Follow @USArmy on Twitter.

MIGHTY CULTURE

5 of the best musical instruments to go to war with

Musical instruments have been going to war since humans started gathering large armies — I don’t have an exact date, but I can tell you it was a long, long time ago. But humans have advanced to the point where we no longer require war drums. Instead, one guy from a unit brings a guitar on deployment and plays the same three goddamn power chords for eight months.

Pride Month: celebrating all who served
Just remember, it could always be worse.


Musical instruments really were a necessity in warfare for much of human history. Music wasn’t just used for battlefield intimidation, it was used as a means to communicate orders to troops so they could be heard over the din of old-timey combat. Buglers were the radiomen of their day when it came to battlefield tactics. Drummers kept a marching army on the move. All the musical instruments were morale builders for troops a long way from home.

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

The legacy of music on the battlefield lives on in the modern-day form of U.S. military bands, like the Marine Corps’ The President’s Own, Today, they are used for ceremonial and morale-building events. Admit it, there would be a lot less interest in some events without the pomp and glory of some well-placed martial music.

It is worth nothing, however, that there is a real hierarchy to musical instruments on the battlefield, depending on which side you’re fighting, how big the instrument is, and the amount of effort it takes to haul it into combat.

5. Whistles

And by whistles, I mean the kind lifeguards use to inform you that there’s no running next to the pool. In World War I, officers used whistles to signal a march forward and “over the top” of the trenches and toward the Kaiser. Whistles were used in battles at the Somme, Verdun, and Belleau Wood.

If it seems like a bad idea to use a loud whistle that would alert the enemy (and their machine guns) as you and your mates were coming to inflict pain in the name of the King (or whomever else), you’d be right. A charge across no man’s land was usually a pretty costly affair. The whistle was also used in a number of other ways, like a warning to stay clear of firing artillery.

A good rule of thumb if you ever find yourself in World War I: steer clear of whistles.

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

It’s safe to say that these are a bit out of tune.

4. Harmonicas

These days, most people associate the harmonica with cowboys, cattle drivin’, rustlers, and wild-west lawmen. But it actually originated much earlier than all that. It gained popularity in the U.S. in time for the Civil War and was still pretty popular among American troops well through World Wars I and II.

Small, compact, and lightweight, it was not an instrument you’d get confused with say, an order to go over the top, and it didn’t have to be lugged around like Derek’s stupid guitar. It also made for some really great solo music when you’re sitting around by the fire, bored and waiting for your lieutenant to order you to run through mud at a machine gun.

And, unlike a drum, every once it a while, a well-placed harmonica would stop a bullet.

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

Which usually would not end well for you and your buds.

3. Bugles

Bugles weren’t just used for battlefield communication, they dominated every aspect of a troop’s daily life. When to wake up, when to eat, when the duty day was over, even sick call — all communicated through bugle calls.

Unfortunately for the enemy, a bugle call more often than not meant the a hundred or more war horses were on their way to mush you and your battle buddies into the ground.

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

“Don’t you dare let that beat drop, son.”

2. Drums

Anyone who’s heard the opening bars of Metallica’s Enter Sandman can probably tell you just how awesome drums can be, even if the beat is very simple. In war, drums were not only used as communications, but also as a way to intimidate an enemy force into believing their numbers were bigger than they actually were.

In modern times, drums are used for ceremonial purposes or, like Enter Sandman, as a means of depriving captured Iraqis of sleep.

1. Bagpipes

Easily the best instrument for hiding an army’s numbers, bagpipes were considered a weapon of war until 1996. It was said that a highland regiment never went to war without a piper in the lead, so the bagpipes meant that that an army was on the move — and the enemy (usually the British) could have no idea how big it was. The pipes hid all other sounds.

By World War II, the pipes were relegated to being a background instrument, used only well behind friendly lines — until Bill Millan landed on Sword Beach during D-Day, sporting a kilt and playing the pipes.

The unmistakable sound of bagpipes on the move probably struck fear into the heart of any enemy, even if that sound came from miles away. It was loud enough to give you plenty of warning the Scots were on the move. They wanted you to be there when their army arrived.

MIGHTY CULTURE

The Perks of PCSing: Turning a move into an adventure

Having been married to someone in the military for almost a decade at this point, there are two things I learned quickly that will almost always be true. The first is that no matter what, there will always be at least one MRE somewhere in your house. The second, is that you will have to move. You will move a lot, you will move often, and there is a high likelihood you will have to move somewhere unfamiliar. While PCS and other forms of military travel are put on temporary hold right now, it can still be helpful to think of ways to make some of the more stressful, and sometimes more time consuming aspects, work for you.

Any move, military or otherwise, comes with obvious stressors and things to consider. From prospective jobs, future school districts, housing, and arguably the most stressful: trying to convince your friends to help pack the moving truck. While there are options in the military to have your things professionally packed and moved, my husband and I have always taken the more hands-on approach. Albeit more tedious, it has kind of become tradition for us. It gives us one last chance to say goodbye to friends we’ve made, pay them in pizza and beer and convince them that we really didn’t mean to pack some of those boxes so heavy.


Pride Month: celebrating all who served

I’ve gotten a lot of great advice from people over the years about the best way to adjust to a new duty station. It’s easier when you have built in ice breakers like school aged kids or more social hobbies, but overall, everyone learns to adjust in their own way. Something else that seemingly less significant or explored is the actual act of getting from point A to point B.

Even during the anxiety and uncertainty of our very first move, my favorite part of a PCS has always been hitting the road and making conscious efforts to plan our route in a memorable way. Our duty stations have been all over the country, so we’ve been able to cover some significant ground in a relatively short amount of time. There’s something about taking what is typically deemed more utilitarian and turning it into its own experience that really seems to feed the soul.

When I think about some of my favorite memories with my husband and kids, I think about our PCS roadtrips. Our oldest son visited the Grand Canyon and traveled through 23 states before his first birthday. We spent an entire day driving around Albuquerque, NM visiting filming locations from Breaking Bad, which admittedly was more of a personal bucket list item, but my husband had control of the radio that day, so we found a happy compromise.

Our youngest son travelled from Oregon to Louisiana before he was even born (nothing goes better with being seven months pregnant than driving 7 hours a day for a week straight). Both of our boys have managed to get really close to crossing off all 50 states since they’ve been our roadies. We’ve made our way through the good, the bad and the ugly of truck stops, hotels and roadside attractions–few things compare to some of those alien museums in Roswell, which really have the potential to encompass all three traits seamlessly.

We take the time before our move to look at a map and see what’s out there. Sure, there are days where it really is about getting up early and putting in those long hours to get some mileage under our belt, but we always try to counter that with something fun. Sometimes it can feel like “making the best out of a bad situation” if the move comes at an inopportune time, or there are outside factors at play.

One of the realities of being a military family is having a lot of things decided for you. That can seem like a daunting thing, and I would be lying if I said there weren’t times where it was really hard for us in one way or another.

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

At the end of the day it’s about looking for those silver linings in the inevitable. Taking stock in the situation and being able to make it into something you can look back on and appreciate having been in that place at that time. So many things in life are done with the outcome in mind, not the process. Military members and military families will undoubtedly spend a lot of time going from point A to point B, it comes with the territory. What that does however, is offer up the opportunity for adventure. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but sometimes it’s worth taking a detour.

This article originally appeared on Sandboxx. Follow Sandboxx on Facebook.

MIGHTY CULTURE

Sea Story of the Week: My run-in with NCIS

One hundred and fifty days ago was the last time we saw land. At ninety consecutive days at sea, the CO can authorize beer call onboard a U.S. Naval vessel. Ours didn’t.

One hundred and fifty consecutive days is the reason why sailors drink the way they do when they hit port. One hundred and fifty consecutive days is the story behind my only run in with NCIS.


Pride Month: celebrating all who served

You’ll get tired of this view by month 2.

(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Devin M. Langer)

The mundane sounds of the ship’s bells and whistles could no longer be heard in the distance, but were instead replaced by the zips and zooms of families of five astride scooters cutting through traffic. After a grueling three-hour wait for liberty call, we made it off the ship, let loose on the tropical port.

The first thing I learned in my humble beginnings as a young sailor was to order the biggest alcoholic drink I could find, as soon as I could find it. Today, my five-course meal was four orders of shots and a burger. After months of MIDRATS and MREs, my stomach was torn. Like a true intellectual, instead of indulging on local culture and foods, I stuck to what I know — a place we have back home: Hooters. I traveled 7,326 miles to dine at a fine establishment that I often frequent in the states.

Two shots in and the ship’s coordinates were starting to fade quick. After months of mandatory sobriety, the alcohol quickly replaces the blood in my veins. The bad-decision hamster wheel starts turning and, suddenly, sh*t ideas become the best ideas. I stand in line at the ATM behind a white expat that’s surrounded by girls that were obviously paid to be there, rubbing his back as he withdraws more cash. I punch in my four-digit pin to see seven months of tax-free, pathetic petty officer pay screaming at me, eager to be blown on warm beer, greasy food, and squalid strippers.

Earlier that day, getting briefed on liberty, we were told thatthe most important thing to remember was to never leave your battle buddy. If you don’t check in with the same person you checked out with, you might as well become a deserter. Find yourself a dish-washing job, maybe a wife,and learn the native language. You’d be stupid to do it, but you wouldn’t be first.

Four shots in and we’re stumbling down the streets, stopping at various times to piss the letters “USA” sloppily down alleyways and all over buildings — exactly the opposite of what we were briefed to do. It’s like trying to wrangle kittens. The most responsible of us (or, the guy most motivated to see strippers) is the voice of reason that keeps pushing the group forward. After a seemingly ten-mile hump, we arrive at the gate: AREA 51.

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

Kinda like this… but with strippers.

Inside, the smell of a fog machine and cheap perfume attacks my nose. The spotlight is a flood light, the light show looks like a couple of blind kids playing laser tag, and the girls look like a lineup of failed The Bachelor contestants. There was a girl dancing on stage, moving offbeat to the loudest techno song in the world, in between four unused poles. Unprovoked, I suddenly found myself onstage beside the dancer, doing my best Magic Mike impression.

Six shots in and I’m swinging my shirt over my head like a rodeo clown with money stuffed into the lining of my pants. The whole club is cheering me on — the strippers, the servers, everyone. When the song ends, my drunk ass follows the dancer into the back room. I hear a mix of laughs and excited screams coming from all the girls and the madams that are getting them ready. They drop what they’re doing to run over and take a picture with me.

In my drunken stupor, I assumed it was my handsome good looks and my devilish charms. It wasn’t — it was the big, red target on my back. A giant, green money sign.

We rented out a private room for pennies on the dollar. The drinks were cheaper in buckets and we got a complimentary bottle of kerosene disguised as vodka. The drinks came with dancers, and so the night rolled on. Loud music, bad drinks, and worse company.

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

NCIS Special Agents in action.

(US Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Thomas Mudd)

Out of nowhere the door flies open.

“NCIS!”

Flashlights wave in our faces, screaming girls run off half naked, and there we are, a circle of drunk sailors thinking we’re f*cked. The team of agents clears the entire club, going room by room, scanning for sailors. My heart is pounding. Sobriety has never hit harder. The brief on off-limits areas flashes into my head, suddenly crystal clear:

Area 51 – OFF LIMITS TO ALL U.S. PERSONNEL.

F*ck. The club manager runs around frantically, trying to collect his money. A couple agents ask us if we’re squared away with our tab. We are and, against all protocol, he sneaks us out the back.

With a throbbing head and fuzzy memories of the night before, I pop the first of many Advils of the day and make my way through the hangar bay of the ship to morning passdown and shift change. I walk by faces I recognize from the night before and I pull down the front of my cover and gaze away.

Over fifty sailors were put on restriction, a handful of them were processed out of the Navy.

It was the only run in I’ve ever had with an NCIS Special Agent and he saved my ass.

Editor’s note: So, you think your sea story is better? If you’ve got a tale that the world needs to hear, send it our way.

MIGHTY CULTURE

Your heart matters: Why every service member should get an EKG

Every 80 seconds, an American woman dies of cardiovascular disease. That’s more than every type of cancer combined. We live in a society that has put a great amount of emphasis on educating the masses to identify a heart attack in men, but women present differently. Often the symptoms are misdiagnosed as panic attacks.


The documentary Ms. Diagnosed, sheds light on the problem that women’s symptoms are often not recognized because diagnostic testing has been developed to detect how the disease manifests in men. The documentary highlights a large health disparity between men and women in terms of the care they receive in the United States. Cardiologist Sharonne Hayes, M.D. stresses the importance of women advocating for themselves because, unfortunately, no one else is. This disparity of care translates into even further divisions in professions, like the military, whose statistics are male-dominated.

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

For one female veteran featured in the documentary, Kelsey Gumm, it took ten years of fainting spells and misdiagnoses to discover her heart condition. Her first fainting spell occurred in boot camp. Prior to that, she had been a healthy, active teenager involved in dance and athletics throughout high school. At the age of 17, when medical professionals told her she was experiencing anxiety and dehydration, she defaulted to trust. After all, she was in the middle of boot camp, anxiety and dehydration came with the territory. It would take ten years of fainting spells and misdiagnoses before she was sent to a cardiologist.

At the age of 27 Gumm’s military career, the only path she had ever wanted, was over. She was fitted with a defibrillator and pacemaker and began her new civilian life feeling defeated, angry, and scared. All of this could have been avoided. Had Gumm received an EKG prior to enlisting the heart defect would have been discovered, and she would never have gone into cardiac arrest. True, she also wouldn’t have been allowed into the Navy, but she would have been equipped with the knowledge to pursue a healthy life with the heart she had. Knowledge and prevention make for good bedfellows. Today she is living a strong healthier life equipped with a viable plan forward based on facts, a passion for bike riding, and a desire for heart advocacy.

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

Kelsey Gumm

The military does not give the proper test for detecting heart disease when potential cadets go through the Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS). Physical deformities are screened but not the heart. A simple EKG takes only a few minutes. Those few minutes could save countless lives of men and women.

Gumm’s story is one of survival. Kelsey Nobles of Mobile, Alabama, did not have the same good fortune. In 2019, at the age of 18, she died of cardiac arrest during boot camp. Her’s is not the only story. There are other names, other lives cut short. In 2006 a study published by the American Journal of Cardiology found that between 1977 and 2001, the sudden deaths of women recruits, within 25 days of arriving for training, 81% were due to “reasons that may have been cardiac in origin.”

Pride Month: celebrating all who served

When Gumm was asked why military hearts matter she responded by saying, “Our heroes, our warriors, people serving our country deserve the best health care provided to them. They deserve to have their hearts checked. We are in a stressful job and stress is a leading factor in heart disease. In the military stress is so increased yet we default to thinking these men and women are young and healthy so they can’t be at risk. It simply isn’t true. Anyone can experience this. For something that is so easily tested it is inexcusable for heart health to not be provided for all military—for those in processing, for those serving, and for all veterans.”

The solution is simple. MEPS and yearly physicals should include EKGs.

MIGHTY CULTURE

This author channeled his emergency-response experience in the newest Graves thriller

One of the joys of reading is the long-running book series. One-off stories are well and good but there is great joy in reading a multiple book series featuring the same cast of characters and watching them grow and deal with increasingly severe situations. Serialized fiction is not for everyone but if it is your jam, there are few literary joys equivalent to a good series.

One long running series is the Jonathan Grave series of books by John Gilstrap. Twelve books and counting, it is the sort of thing that can excite an appreciator of serial fiction. I conducted an interview with the author of the book so he can talk about his latest offering.


This interview has been lightly edited for formatting and presentation purposes.

Hi, John! Thanks for taking time to talk to us today. Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?

My name is John Gilstrap. I am a lifelong resident of Northern Virginia, as is my bride of 36 years. Since 1995, I have penned 21 thrillers and one nonfiction book. My passion has always been writing. In fact, I am one of precious few people I know who, in my sixth decade on the planet, is doing exactly what I would have told you I wanted to do when I was a teenager.

Hellfire is the latest novel in your long-running Jonathan Grave series of books. Please tell us a bit about this series and its protagonist.

Long-running indeed! Hellfire is the 12th entry in the series. I never dreamed that the series would have that kind of legs. What an honor!

Jonathan Grave and his team are freelance hostage rescue specialists. As a team, they often work outside of the law, but never on the wrong side of it. When the police run a hostage rescue operation, their primary objective is to make sure that the bad guys go to jail. When Security Solutions, Jonathan’s team, run a rescue, their sole focus is to save the good guys. What happens to the bad guys is not their concern.

Uncle Sam is aware of what the team is capable of, and it is not uncommon for the director of the FBI to engage them to do things that governments simply cannot do.

I don’t think of the Grave books as a series, though. They are standalone thrillers with recurring characters. I work hard to make sure that each book can stand on its own without confusing readers, while including treats for the benefit of fans who have come along for the whole ride.

To me, one of the interesting things about this novel is the cast of characters at Grave’s company Security Solutions and his contact at the FBI. Please tell me about them and how they have evolved as the series has progressed.

Thank you. Jonathan does not suffer fools. He surrounds himself with a team that is extraordinarily competent, and they are 100% committed to each other. Of the three main operators, Jonathan and Boxers are former Delta Force operators, and Gail Bonneville was part of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team (HRT). The fourth member of the team, Venice Alexander, is a world-class hacker who can work wonders in cyberspace.

Jonathan has a special relationship with Irene Rivers, director of the FBI. Back in the day, when Irene was still a special agent for the FBI and Jonathan was still in the Army, Jonathan and Boxers broke more than a few laws to save Irene’s young daughters from a predator. That’s their special secret and their special bond. After Irene was named FBI director, that bond took on special importance.

Jonathan’s team is the only family he has.

A lot of thriller books in this genre seem dominated by former military or law enforcement writers. But I learned in preparing the review for another of your books, Nathan’s Run, your background was as a firefighter and safety engineer. How has that informed your writing style?

Beginning when I was 23 years old, I entered the worst moments of strangers’ lives and brought order to chaos. Over the next fifteen years, over thousands of emergency responses, I delivered two babies and counseled countless grieving spouses, parents and children. I was burned, shot at, and threatened with one very large knife. Along the way, I saved far more lives than I lost and formed deep bonds with some fine public servants. And I did all of that without being paid a dime. Those experiences affect everything that I think and do. How can it not?

Professionally, my safety engineering dealt mainly with explosives and other hazardous materials. I conducted well over 1,000 accident investigations, from minor cuts to fatalities; from small fires to major explosions.

I don’t know exactly how that all informs my writing style, but I figure it must. Again, how could it not?

I was interested to learn that your one non-fiction book was about the rescue of Kurt Muse during the Panamanian Invasion. Did the people you meet researching that book help build your portrayal of Jonathan Grave?

The people I met doing the research for Six Minutes to Freedom serve as the models for both Jonathan and Boxers. The men and women of the American Special Forces are a breed unlike any other. They are dedicated not just to God and country, but also to each other and to their mission. Those are all traits and principles that drive Jonathan Grave and his team.

As with any long running series, one often wonders ‘What next?’ What is next for Grave and his company of Hostage Rescue professionals?

The 13th entry in the Grave series will be Stealth Attack. It is still too deeply in the development phase to describe it.

After the end of this book, there was a sample chapter for a new series you are writing called Crimson Phoenix. Could you take a moment to tell us about it?

The Crimson Phoenix series takes my work in an entirely new direction. In it, World War III lasts about eight hours, and when it is done, the United States is left in ruins. With all the infrastructure gone, and elected leaders unable to communicate with people outside of the bunkers that protected official Washington, it falls to individual citizens to figure out a way to continue living. It doesn’t take long for the weak to turn feral. In one corner of West Virginia, though, a single mom named Victoria Emerson turns out to be the leader that everyone’s been looking for.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today!

It’s been a real pleasure.