Most people look at me and see a 28-year-old woman, not a war veteran. At the tender age of 17, I joined the military seeking guidance and stability in an unstable world. It was the first adult decision I ever made. It would be an understatement to say that I got more than I asked for. My first day of basic training was September 11th, 2001. I was sitting with a platoon of strangers as the towers fell that day and my drill sergeant said we were all going to war. He was right.
At just 20, I was sent into Afghanistan as a part of Operation Enduring Freedom and earned my combat patch and the right to call myself a veteran of foreign war. I witnessed violence, death and carnage that I was totally unprepared for.
Three weeks in to my deployment, one of my closest friends died and I was part of funeral detail. A month or so later when my base and the surrounding area were attacked by mortar shells, I witnessed both locals and my fellow soldiers being brought back "inside the wire" by ambulance. The images of their injuries, including lost limbs and severe head and face trauma, will always be imprinted on my brain.
It will be 8 years this October since I came home from overseas but the experiences live inside me like it was yesterday. After I returned to the states, I began living in my own personal bubble, watching life just pass me by. I became totally isolated from society. Reintegration was something I didn't know how to do. I no longer fit in anywhere in my own life. I experienced the classic symptoms of PTSD -- night terrors, paranoia, fear of crowds, increased hostility and anger, hyper vigilance and periods of deep depression.
Before I found out that I had Chronic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, I suffered through years of agony. During that time I was homeless and a drug abuser (both cocaine and later crack cocaine), I was also involved in the sex trade. Basically I was a broken human being. Eventually I reached out for help and was connected to Give an Hour. Through that organization I began seeing a psychotherapist who saved my life. Today I am the mother of an adorable little girl and a spokesperson for veterans with mental health issues.
But here's the thing: I will always struggle with my PTSD and I am not alone. There are hundreds of thousands of veterans, many of them women, out there just like me, suffering and feeling like society has forgotten about them. While I know that society is awakening and stepping up for my brother and sisters in arms, there is still so much more education and awareness-building that has to be done before our country really understands what those who served are going through now.
That's why I am honored that I will be a part of Fatigues To Fabulous (F2F) and representing women veterans across the country. The fact that the fashion industry has taken the time to pay attention to us, to women whose prior careers were all about dressing and moving like men in an all-male world, is amazing and inspirational. Beginning with this event, F2F is going to give hope to women like me all across America.
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