Marianne served in the Air Force as a crew chief on a KC-135 refueler jet. She discusses what it's like refueling a plane in midair, being deployed with her sister and other aspects of life in the Air Force.
Interview conducted on August 27, 2015 over the phone
Present: Richard Hayden and Marianne Sheehan
Transcribed by Richard Hayden
Richard Hayden: What is your full name?
Marianne Sheehan: Marianne Sheehan.
RH: What branch of the military did you serve in and what years?
MS: United States Air Force, 2009 to 2013.
RH: OK. What was your rank when you got out?
MS: I was a – what the hell was I? Airman First Class. [laughs]
RH: What was your MOS?
MS: I was a Crew Chief on a KC-135.
RH: What was your unit?
MS: 906 ARS.
RH: Alright. So what motivated you to join the military?
MS: Well, my older sister had joined the Air Force. We grew up in a small town. Well, actually, I grew up in Brooklyn so September 11th definitely played a part in the fact that my older sister joined. I really just wanted to get out of this area but I didn’t want to go for something like college. I wanted to serve my country. I actually joined to be a chaplain’s assistant and got jet mechanic. [laughs]
RH: Why did you pick the branch of service that you did?
MS: Because my older sister went into the Air Force. That was really it.
RH: OK. Alright. How did your family feel about your decision?
MS: Well, when my older sister went in everybody was upset. My mom, I think she cried for months and they made the recruiter come to the house and interrogated the recruiter but by the time I did it they were like, “whatever. You’ll be fine, you don’t have a choice.” I remember because I panicked right before boot camp and told my mom I wanted to go to college instead and that was her response. [laughs]
RH: Where were you on September 11th?
MS: So my parents got divorced in Brooklyn and we were poor and we were part of this program that was called the “Break Away” program. We moved here the end of August which just so happens to be two weeks before September 11th. My dad worked for CBS security at the time and we had just moved to this small town in the middle of nowhere. I was ten years old and no other ten year olds even knew what the twin towers were in this town.
So we couldn’t get a hold of him for a couple days because of the gridlock and everything but I was in school here and then when I got home, that was when my mom told me everything and sat me my sister down. At that point we still hadn’t gotten a hold of him. It sucked.
RH: Do you have any other specific memories of that day?
MS: I remember my mom telling me that she saw him on TV. And I remember that I didn’t believe her. I knew she was lying to make me feel better. I think at the age of ten I had more intuition than I do now, because I can’t tell when my mom’s lying now but I could at that age. So at the time I knew that she needed me to pretend that I believed it. I was terrified but I pretended like I believed her when she said that she saw him on TV.
RH: Alright. Where did you go to boot camp?
MS: I went to boot camp at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
RH: What was boot camp like?
MS: I grew up in a really strict home so boot camp, with the strictness and the rules and the yelling, it really wasn’t anything new to me. It was just kind of amplified and constant. I remember thinking the first four weeks that I was truly going to die every single night. I didn’t want to fall asleep because I thought I was going to die. [laughs]
I became the Guidon bearer which is the last thing you want to do in boot camp. Everybody tells you, “just blend in. Don’t say anything. Just do your push-ups and be quiet.” Well I was the friggin’ idiot at the front of the squad with a flag so [laughs] that was not what I wanted. [RH laughs] But I ended up loving being the Guidon bearer. You know, if I could do boot camp again I would just to get in shape.
RH: Alright. Good to go. And what was your follow-up training like?
MS: Tech school. So, I had never touched a wrench before and I didn’t know anything about tools or mechanics. I went in “open general” but because I scored so highly on the ASVAB they gave me a mechanical job. So when I got to tech school I was that kid. I was the kid in class that the instructor taught because if I got it, then the rest of the class got it.
We had a tool test and I remember it clearly. It had a word bank and pictures and that was it. All you had to do was match up the pictures to the word bank. I failed that test twice and never passed it. They sent me through because they just assumed that I would fail the final exam and get washed out.
About halfway through tech school I had an instructor pull me aside. Now, I’m a pretty girl so I had kind of gotten used to – I was way too comfortable with joking around with my instructors. He pulled me aside and said, “listen. I will send your ass back to boot camp.” Because I clearly was just mad I had this stupid job. I didn’t know anything. I was disgusted and I hated it. I hated the environment. He said, “you can do one of two things. You can let yourself fail out or you can turn around and be the best. It’s up to you. Either way, you’re going through this course.” So I did that. I graduated second in my class and I would do things like make up songs in my room to help me remember crap in my class. The ratio of male to female for mechanic is thirty males for every one female when you go to tech school so I didn’t really leave my room at the time. I played guitar and kept to myself and studied my ass off and graduated second.
RH: Where were you stationed in the US when you deployed?
MS: I was at Scott Air Force Base. I got there in February of 2010 and that’s where I connected with my unit. It was a brand new unit and it was a TFI unit so it was active duty working with the Guard. They just didn’t have the training available for us so I was the beginning of everything. I was the first Airman out of tech school to join this unit.
It was a rough environment because it was kind of like – the active duty would yell at you if you would call the Guard members by their first name but the Guard members would yell at you if you would call them by their last name. You couldn’t win. It was like living with parents that were constantly fighting. It was a tough environment, I’m not going to lie. So it was a brand new unit. I had a lot to learn and I was told that I would just learn as I went. I went to Washington state two times. I went there for three weeks and then I came home for a couple months and then I went there for three months then I came home for the holidays and then we actually deployed in January 2011 to Al Udeid.
RH: How many times did you deploy? Just that once?
MS: Just the one time for four months.
RH: What exactly was the dates of those deployments?
MS: I was deployed from January 2011 to May 14th. Yeah. 2011.
RH: OK. Perfect. What was the mission of your unit exactly?
MS: Well, we’re a maintenance unit and my jet is a refueler. It was a flying gas station. We act as support in the air for the mission.
RH: What, specifically, was your job within that unit?
MS: So I was a crew chief. I was a jet mechanic. We’re the last ones to touch the aircraft. We’re the ones who brief the pilots on the current condition of the jet, we hand them the forms, tell them everything about the inspection and jet’s condition, answer any questions they have and send them out after calling flight controls for them on the ground. Then we wait for the jet to land and then we do our inspection. If I find anything that needs to be serviced, I service it if I can – the tires, hydro, we have specialists for everything. We have back shops. So if there is a problem with the engine, I might be able to do some tests but what I would need to do is write it up in the forms and go to the jet specialist and say, “listen, this is what is going on with my jet. I need you guys to come out here and check it out.”
The cool thing about being deployed is the opportunities that you have. I got to help with an engine change out. I got to help with hydraulic specialists with tasks I’d never seen before like changing out the entire strut on a jet. If a civilian is reading or hearing this they might not understand it but the entire structure that the landing gear is connected to is your strut and it’s hydraulically operated so when you need to remove it, it’s a huge process. I had to change out a windshield one time and that took – how long did it take? – like fourteen hours. The crew chief that I worked with, we were very dedicated. We actually stayed the entire fourteen hours to finish our job and that was in the middle of a lightning storm. I’ll never forget it. I’m on this friggin’ stand twenty feet up [laughs] trying to get this window in.
What was really cool and really encouraging for me when I was deployed was waiting for my jet to land and seeing on the news that they got Osama bin Laden. Being on the flight line and just watching jet after jet take off and these blue flames shooting twenty feet out the back and you’d rattle across the desert ground because it was so loud. And just watching them and knowing where they’re going and knowing what they’re doing and knowing that you were a part of that was incredible. It was an incredible thing to witness.
The job of the jet mechanic or the job of the crew chief is – we’re covered in brake dust and grease, we’re very disgruntled, we smoke our cigarettes but we inspect that jet. We know everything wrong with it. We know that sometimes, you know, some things are going to leak. We know when to service our tires. We know that jet in and out. That’s our baby. So when we hand that off to the pilots, we can answer any question they have for us and we are very confident in the fact that the jet is good to go and they trust us and that is a big deal.
RH: Nice. Did you fly at all or were you just maintenance on the ground?
MS: I would fly with my jet because it was a big refueler. If you a fighter crew chief, you’re not going to fly with your jet. Crew chiefs on the KC-135s have their own beds in the back of the jet so when we would go on TDYs we’d just chill in the back of the jet. We’d land somewhere and get out and you do our refuel, do our inspection, get it all closed up for the night and then the next morning we’d get out there before the air crew shows and you get it all ready to go for the flight.
RH: Nice. You said you were a refueler and you were doing in air refueling, is that correct?
MS: Yes. The jet is a refueler.
RH: Perfect. Could you please – I’ve never done this – for me and people who have never done this before, could you please walk through the operation of what refueling another jet midair is like?
MS: [laughs] So the air crew consists of your pilot and your co-pilot. Your boom operator lays down in the belly of the jet and in the belly of the jet is this bed so he rests on his stomach and he is looking out these three huge windows and he has a joystick for his right hand and what he does is – he has an hydraulically and electronically powered boom – and what it does is it lowers down and then you have the option of letting it go into free fall. And an F-16 or whatever will fly up to the boom. They have to line it up just right then they insert the boom into the receiver receptacle on the other jet and once that’s connected, they then the ability to speak to each other – the boom operator to the receiving jet’s pilot – through the headsets. In a couple of minutes, thousands of gallons of fuel have pumped into this jet and it’s all done in flight. And then they fly away! We retract our boom back up into the jet and we keep going.
RH: Nice. On one flight, how many jets would you refuel, on average?
MS: It really varies. It varies on your mission. It varies on what’s going on that day, where you’re flying and what their missions are. I was on a flight over the pond and we refueled three or four. It was awesome. The jet, the way the jet works is it has body tanks and wing tanks so they have to be very careful about where they pull the fuel from because they have to make sure that everything is balanced.
The fuel that they use all depends on where you’re at. We need our fuel too. [laughs] Every calculation, they make. As a crew chief, all I really get told is how many gallons of fuel I need to put onto my jet before that mission is operated. So all of that gets calculated and taken care of on the ground before we take off. My job as the crew chief is to make sure that I put the exact amount of gas in each tank that ops has already pre-calculated in accordance with that specific mission into the tanks while the jet is on the ground. So just like how on your car you have your receptacle. We have ours called the SPR. To put JP-8 on our jet, that job requires three crew chiefs. One crew chief to stand in the right wheel well and connect the fuel truck up to the jet and flip switches that open and close tanks, one guy in the cock pit watching the numbers to make sure the tanks get filled according to the mission and watching the MAC – the balance of the jet as fuel is loaded – and one crew chief at the nose of the jet standing at a fire bottle for safety.
That’s our job. That’s what we care about. Most of the time we didn’t go with the jet. They do their mission all on their own and then they bring it back to us when they’re done breaking it.
RH: Alright! Did you ever have a refueling, an in air refueling, that went wrong?
MS: Oh. Do you know what? No. I never did. I’m sure it’s happened but I never have. What I’ve had [laughs] is – the scary thing isn’t really the refueling. The scary thing is if a light bulb goes out and you can’t get the landing gear. If they hit the switch for the landing gear to go down or come up and the light doesn’t turn on. But then they have back-up systems where they have a little window where they can just peek out through the floor of the jet to make sure that the landing gear has either retracted or worked for them.
The scariest thing that I’ve seen was human error and it was when I was deployed. So what happens is when a crew chief is told – how do I word this? – so when the shifts change over and a crew chief inspects the entire jet and it’s ready to go for a flight, you have to wait for the air crew to come out. Apparently, at this time was when the shifts changed so what they did was they sent out a hydro specialist to sit there and be ready for the air crew. We have these wands that we use as crew chiefs that light up, kind of like red cones and we use them to marshall the jet out of its parking spot. As the jet starts to taxi we salute the pilot and our bird before it heads to the runway.
What had happened was this specialist, the air crew did their walk around and everything was good to go. I don’t know how it happened. I guess – somehow or another – the door to the nose was left open. Now, the way the jet is set up is there is an entrance in front of the cockpit and that has a ladder. About five feet to the left but under the jet you have – you’d have to walk over and look under to see it – it’s this three foot by three foot door. You prop that open and that’s where the forms usually are for the jet when it’s parked and that’s where you get your information. The secret squirrel stuff is in there.
What had happened was the jet took off and the nose door had been left open. Now this is also where all of your flight control cables turn through with all of your pulleys. So they’re in flight and they have no control over their flight controls now because the pressure in their nose was like a wind tunnel. So this air crew had no idea what was going on and truly thought that they were going to die. It was a red landing so it was an emergency landing and terrifying. Then once they landed, we figured out what was wrong. But that was just simple human error and we are humans and this is why the pilot walks around the jet and closes that door upon inspection. I think maybe the crew switched out or something. Human error – terrifying. It could have been completely avoided. We got in a lot of trouble for that.
But we’re actually, we’re so meticulous. You lose a rag and then that jet is grounded until that rag is found just because there is no room for error. You do not want the jet to take off and have that rag stuck somewhere. You know that it can possibly do some serious damage. Something as simple as leaving a door open, losing a tool. There was a hex wrench – it was a smaller size. So imagine the lead from a number two pencil, if you cut that pencil in half and took all the lead out and then just bent it ninety degrees at one end, that’s pretty much a hex wrench. One time a crew chief lost this and we searched the entire flight line for it for hours. I only remember because I found it on a piece of AGE equipment that he had used earlier. It was on a stand that he had been using earlier. When it comes to details and being absolute Nazis about making sure that everything is incredibly safe, we do that for that reason.
RH: Good to go. I know we’re over the phone. I wish you could have seen my face when you told me about that. [laughs] What are some of the notable events that occurred during your deployment that you may not have mentioned already?
MS: I got deployed and I was roommates with my sister. The ratio of male to female is three hundred to one and that was really tough for me. I’m so glad I had my older sister there to really bodyguard me. She took really great care of me.
Being deployed was incredibly difficult for me at first because I just wanted to be a friggin’ chaplain’s assistant and was so angry at this job. I was surrounded by crew chiefs which are like Satan’s favorite demons on Earth and couldn’t believe that this was my life. About halfway through my deployment, my sister pulled me aside and said, pretty much, “you can either be miserable or you can become the best on the flight line. Either way, you’re going to have the job of being a crew chief for four years so the choice is yours.”
I studied my ass off and did a one-eighty on my deployment. I became the go to for the TO which is Technical Order and the TO is a crew chief’s bible. I mean, it tells us step by step how to do our jobs and we have to follow it according to procedure to do everything and anything with the jet. So the TO is referenced in all of our work. We have to say which step we did in accordance with – it’s the crew chief’s bible pretty much. Being the go to person, where in the TO is the tire change? Where in the TO is this? And so I loved being that guy.
I kept at it and worked really hard. I went to every back shop. I assisted in random things just because I could and I loved learning about things that weren’t normal for the crew chief to learn about. I actually got coined by the base commander for the knuckle buster award which is being the hardest working crew chief on the flight line. So for me, my deployment made me become the kind of crew chief I wanted to be. And it had to be that environment. It wasn’t going to happen little by little in this brand new unit where, really, I just had a hard time belonging. I became somebody who belonged on my deployment and did not want to come home. And I had an excellent deployment, I really did.
RH: Good to go. What do you remember most about the airmen that you served with?
MS: Well, it depends. I have served with some of the most amazing people. My instructor on the Guard side would secretly teach me the names of the tools because I didn’t know their names when I first got there and watched me struggle with the active duty and would take the time to teach me because I really knew nothing. I had some of the most incredible teammates that I was deployed with. My best friend from boot camp – I am very much in contact with all if these people and visit them.
You make friends for life that become family and it’s because the camaraderie in the military, it doesn’t exist anywhere else. You’re really in hell and you’re in it with the people around you. I have done some of the world’s worst tasks in the military but had an amazing time because of the people that I was doing it with and have learned as I struggled to become a civilian that I could have the best job in the world and hate it if I’m working with the wrong civilians.
Also, some of the worst people in the entire universe I have met and served with. So you’ve got to pick and choose and surround yourself with the ones that make you want to be a better person. And, if you can, make it a teaching moment if you’re working with the ones who are just assholes. I had to learn, I just had to learn the hard way of how to pick and choose who was really there to help me and who was just there to either hurt me or betray me in some way. And the Air Force is a very different branch than the others. I’ve heard and seen the camaraderie in the other branches is just different. The pride in the Army and the Marines is so dominant and so awesome. The Air Force, in my experience, just didn’t really have that camaraderie. And you know, that’s just my experience but I kind of wish that we did.
RH: Alright. Good to go. What is the best part about being a crew chief?
MS: [laughs] We never had to wear our blues. Nobody enjoys wearing that crap. We’re covered in brake dust and grease most of the time so we are never expected to be in blues like nonners – admin, finance, medical, desk jobs – unless of course we get in trouble which for crew chiefs is about as often as we shower. We’re pretty blunt and rude and we’re jerks. But, you know, we’re known for it so it was kind of nice once I got adjusted to that it was great. I mean, the ability to joke around, the fact that my supervisor could throw me into a headlock while teaching me something about the jet. [laughs] And I am much better off in that environment whereas, medical, my friends – I lived in the dorms because I was young and single and I would listen to these medical people complain about their mean supervisors because they looked at them the wrong way and I was like, “you’ve got to be kidding me.” I’m so glad I’m not in that job.
The best part about being a crew chief is you watch your jet take off and land. If you’re in finance, you can work your ass off all day and at the end of the day, people only hate you. And you don’t ever get to see what you do but as a crew chief you get to see. That’s your baby. You are a jet mechanic. That’s your thing and it’s a badass job and it gets the respect that it deserves and it was awesome. I really had a good experience with being a jet mechanic. I loved being mechanical. I loved working with my hands and I loved joking around with good friends.
So the good parts about being a crew chief can also be the worst parts. That environment was very rough. I couldn’t do it for more than four years. I reached a point where if I heard one more “that’s what she said” joke, I was going to beat somebody with a wrench. It kind of has the effect on you that makes you – it turns you into an asshole. Really, there’s no polite way to say that. I remember going home for Thanksgiving and being told, and I will never forget it, my sister just kind of looked and me and was like, “wow Mare, you’re really a crew chief.” And with this disgust. [laughs] And I have just never loved that person. I was the sweet girl from church who just kind of went sour after that environment really changed me. I miss it now but I don’t think I could do it for the rest of my life. I don’t.
It is a hard environment for – do you know what? It’s a hard environment for a female. It’s a boy’s club. You’ll never be one of the guys as much as you want to be and in the military if you’re a female you’re either one of two things: you’re either easy or a bitch. And the only way I ever got anybody’s respect was after months of them thinking that I was just a bitch. And it was hard. I didn’t have any female friends which was kind of nice because I don’t really get along with females unless they’re very dude-like. [laughs] But that was hard also. I was very alone at times and alone in my struggles. So you take the good with the bad.
RH: Alright. Good to go. What was your relationship like with the pilots?
MS: [laughs] Again, some of the worst human beings to walk the Earth and some of the best. When I got there, the best pilot that I ever got to work with was one of the first to join the unit just like myself. He always had this huge smile, if he ever had a bad day you didn’t know it. He cared tremendously about the mission and the people around him. Working with him made you want to not only follow his lead, but become a better person. Most incredible individual I ever met to this day. He died in Afghanistan in 2013. I also met other amazing pilots, the kind of pilot who didn’t ever once remind me how much they out ranked me or how important their job was or anything like that. The kind of pilot that treated their crew chiefs with respect, that says a lot about a pilot. There were some who were really cocky and really awful but a lot of them were decent human beings and that goes for any job anywhere
RH: Alright. Good to go. Did you have any transformative or significant events that informed your deployment aside from the ones you already told me?
MS: Not that I know of. Other than Osama bin Laden, kind of, and just being there with my sister. That was really it.
I made rank on my deployment. I made my first rank outside of tech school so that was a big thing. And my arms. I could not lift my arms for like a week. They were covered in bruises. [laughs] It was a good environment for that to happen though.
RH: Before I move in, is there anything I left out that you’d like to address about the deployment?
MS: You know, on my deployment I kind of really got introduced to the active duty people who were – all they knew were rules and regs and they always studied the rules so that they could yell at people. I guess because you’re surrounded by so many more people than you would be at your home base, that I just kind of was disgusted a few times at how people released their anger of being deployed and released their anger of not being home with their family on the people beneath them in their chain of command. So if they outranked you, sometimes they would just let it all out on you and that really sucked.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Can you talk a little bit about your immediate post-deployment experiences?
MS: When I got home – I didn’t want to go home. I became somebody that was respected deployed. I became a crew chief that people trusted. I had earned and come so far and I knew that when I would get back home, I would be starting from ground zero. I had made such good friends.
Oh! You know, actually, one time when I was deployed I participated in this program where I spent the first half of the day with somebody in the Army to see what their branch was like and then spent the second half of the day with this female to show her what the Air Force was like as a crew chief. She was a missile controller. This wasn't a program or anything that existed, had I asked to do it in the beginning of my deployment I would've just gotten laughed at like, “why the hell do you want to see what the Army is like?” But because I asked towards the end of my deployment all I had to do was just asked my flight chief and was serious about it so he found a way to make it happen. It was an interesting experience. I remember thinking it’s so weird that they’re here for a year and I wasn’t used to standing at attention every single time somebody entered a tent. They were in tents and we were in buildings – or at least we had a hangar – and it was an eye-opening experience to see what the Army was doing versus what we were doing, and their protocols and their way of life versus our way of life. It was very interesting. I apologize I think I went off.
I came home. I locked myself in my room is what I did. I shut down. I got back to Scott and, exactly like I thought, I was miserable. I felt weird. I felt so weird. I didn’t have the relationships that I had on my deployment back at home. I wasn’t really friends with anybody because I was the only female and it was a hard adjustment. For a month I went to work. For months I would go drive myself home after work. I would just, I would tell myself, “just make it to the car. Just make it to the car.” And once I made it to my car, I would fall apart. I would cry uncontrollably.
I would drive myself to my room, lock the door and stay in my room because I forgot how to talk to people. My mind shut down. I didn’t know how to cope with not being deployed and it was the weirdest thing. I knew it was weird and I didn’t know a thing to do and I sure as heck didn’t want to talk about it. So I just would go home and watch episodes of Scrubs or play guitar or piano and never really left my room. I just would lock myself away for months.
RH: Did the airmen around you have similar experiences?
MS: I don’t really know. I know that I, at the time, was in contact with a very close friend of mine who was in the Army and it helped me get through that time. She was still deployed, she was in Afghanistan, and she was a front line medic. I could tell – I was aware of the fact that I was very alone and struggling at home and I didn’t know what to do with myself in struggling. So we counseled each other. We would talk. We would say things that were inside of our heads that we knew we couldn’t say out loud because we knew that people would think that we were crazy. We became very good friends. Actually, we weren’t really that close prior to us facebook messaging each other and really talking about things that we couldn’t talk about with anybody else. And so I actually welcomed her home from her year tour. Actually, we just talked until two A.M. the other night. We’re still very close. And that is what brought us together: learning how to cope.
RH: What are some of the things, or, what are some of the things or techniques that you do to cope?
I started boxing. I was very angry and I didn’t know where the anger was coming from. I just knew I had to release it. So I picked up boxing in East Saint Louis which is about twenty minutes from our base. East Saint Louis is actually the number one most dangerous city in America. The boxing guy that I went to was in a very dangerous part of town. They told me, “whatever you do, don’t stop driving. If you come across a stop sign keep driving because if you stop, somebody will stand in front of your vehicle while the other person comes up from behind and drags you out.” And that was where I learned to box. This guy took kids off the street and would teach them how to fight and would teach them if they didn’t do drugs. That’s where I learned.
RH: Alright. Good to go.
MS: Oh, I forgot one thing.
RH: OK. Sure.
MS: What I ended up doing was I volunteered in the local ER because they took care of me. I went there once as a patient for a very traumatic experience and they took such great care of me that I went back and asked if I could volunteer. Now I thought I’d only do a few hours. I ended up volunteering over Thanksgiving, Christmas and they helped me by the time I left that base. As long as I wasn’t alone with my thoughts and in the ER and serving and helping people, I was OK.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Let’s move on to getting out of the Air Force. How has your military experience shaped your life since you got out?
MS: It makes it very difficult to work with civilians at times. I will always be a veteran and that’s it. It’s very challenging for me and very lonely at times. I physically got out of the military but my mind refuses to accept that I’m no longer active duty. They break us down to nothing then build us back up, train us to be this or that, then point and tell us where to go and what to do. Now I’m a veteran with no sense of identity, no sense of purpose, and no idea where I’m supposed to go. I have the heart to serve and fight for my country and have no idea how to now, and it’s an incredibly hard struggle for me every single day all day.
Becoming a civilian or going into the civilian world, I went from a jet mechanic to a chef. So I was a professional chef in Virginia for this non-profit Christian organization called Young Life. Now Young Life saved me while I was in high school so it was familiar and it was the only way I could walk away from the military. It had to be something familiar because I was terrified. They brainwashed me into thinking that I couldn’t survive as a civilian, like I needed to stay in the military. Which, of course, was because they already invested so much training in me.
And so I went to this camp in Virginia and it’s surrounded by mountains and it’s absolutely beautiful and everything is wonderful except I’m still in military mode. I don’t know that I’ll ever get out of military mode. I don’t think I will. I sit with my back to the wall when I sit in places. That kind of mentality never goes away. I would get yelled at – screamed at! – for food. I’m thinking, “dude, we’re not getting shot at. Why are you so upset?” And he’s a civilian. What the hell does he know? This is all he knows. So that was a very hard environment. I’m sure that I could have gone into any job and it would have been the same thing. I struggle with it no matter what job I do, honestly. The mentality of civilians is just different and it’s a shitty struggle to do on your own. Becoming a civilian, I don’t know if I will ever reach a point where I will stop referring to them as civilians. [laughs]
So I did chef for a year and a half and I sought counsel. I knew that something – I knew that I needed help. So there was this woman who worked on the property who was tough as nails. I mean, this woman, you could just tell had been to hell and back several times and could probably prance her way through it while the demons run. She was just a tough woman. So I went to her and asked her to counsel me and that helped a lot. It was just – I was very angry and I learned later that my anger was actually hurt. I was very hurt that God had let these things happen to me in the military and I only knew how to show that through anger. And so I got counseled on it and that helped tremendously.
After I did Young Life, I realized that I wanted to go to Italy to be a missionary so I moved home to Milford, Pennsylvania and I started fundraising for that as a horse wrangler. And then I was a missionary in Italy for a few months and I moved home and that brings us to February of this year. I started working at a gym in New York and I’m also a coffee barista at my friend’s coffee shop. I need human interaction and I need community and I get that. The gym has a ton of veterans that go to it and I connect with them immediately. They love that I was a crew chief. The older veterans are very surprised because they just never heard of a female crew chief. And the younger veterans, we just need community. We can’t do it on our own.
My sister was in the area for a while before she went to India and she did this program called Vet to Vet and they would have these vet gatherings. It was fantastic. I need that. So I’m reaching out now to find more veteran things. That’s how I got on IAVA. It was because I just needed to hear from somebody who knew how to speak the language that I was trying to speak that no civilian could possibly understand. I needed that military community and it’s still hard. I still struggle. I was told by my manager the other day – I asked him for help with something and he said that it was beneath his paycheck. This is a twenty-one year old kid who has never been anywhere and done fucking nothing for his country. It took everything in me not to lose it on him. I get so offended as a veteran that somebody would say that to me. Or just a male to a female or a human to another human. I had to dig down deep into that military discipline and it gets harder and harder every time I have to do it.
I need more military in my life. When I first moved to Virginia, I actually lived in the town that Virginia Military Institute is located at and I got involved immediately. Well, when I first got out of the military, actually I shaved my head and dyed it teal and had a cheetah print Mohawk because I was like, “woo! I’m done.” And then after three months of hating the military, I missed it. So I would go to chapel at Virginia Military Institute and I got plugged in and I grew in that community and I loved that community because it was like a little bit of the military and a little bit of civilian. [laughs] That was my once a week fix.
Then I moved back to Milford and I’m finding it when I have conversations with veterans at the gym. I find it when I have conversations with military members who just so happen to walk into the coffee shop. And if that’s not enough, then I go online and I find out, how do I get involved? How do I reach out? How do I help? I know that if I’m struggling with that, I can’t imagine how somebody who came home and lost a limb or lost a friend to this war like I did, I can’t imagine how they’re doing. I’ve become more aware in the last couple months how important it is to see that need and take care of myself. It’s very hard because we’re not used to taking care of us. We’re used to taking care of everybody else.
It’s just, you learn a lot about what’s really going on and how important it is to actively pursue getting better and being better. It’s weird because it takes such a strong person to admit that you need help and to go get it. For some reason our minds tell us, “soldier up. Push forward. You’re fine.” So it’s that battle. And then you have the battle of, “is what I’m thinking absolutely crazy or am I the only person who hates civilians?” When I called up my military friends, I feel much better when I talk to a couple of soldiers in the Army and they’re like, “oh no, you’re not alone.” [laughs]
RH: So let me ask you this because you talked about going to the chapel. Has deploying affected you spiritually and, if so, how?
MS: Yes. I joined the Air Force wanting to be a chaplain’s assistant. When I was deployed I was very angry at God for putting me in such a dangerous environment and stayed angry at God my entire time in the military. That was a huge factor in getting out. I missed the person that I used to be when I was in love with the Lord. Now, don’t get me wrong, I have no problem shooting somebody and killing them dead if they are a terrorist or a threat to me or my family. I will have a talk with Jesus when the time is right when I get to those pearly gates and I’ll let Him judge me and I’ll let him ask me about that. But spiritually, I needed more and it changed me as a human being. It really did.
Now the chapel on my deployment was awesome because the chaplain would come out to the flight line because we worked Sundays. We couldn’t go to church so what they did is the chaplain would come out to the flight line and we would have our own twenty minute church service right there at our hangar. That was awesome and very much needed.
So you kind of, you battle with yourself. My battle was more I was becoming somebody I didn’t recognize and I didn’t like. I let the environment change me and change my morals. I didn’t respect myself, respect people around me. I only respected the rank. So I just became a person and I remembered thinking, “wow. I used to smile a lot more. I used to laugh a lot more. I was a much happier person when I was in Young Life.” And that was why I got out.
RH: Alright. OK. Let’s go ahead and shift gears a little bit if we can. What’s your happiest memory of the entire time you served?
MS: Oh man. There was a lot of good memories, you know? Marching at the end of boot camp and I’m the Guidon bearer and I get to hold the flag. Singing the national anthem for my base. Getting coined on my deployment. Serving with my sister. I have a lot of good – oh my gosh.
Do you know what though? I think I laughed the hardest in boot camp one time when me and my best friend snuck into the bathroom while everybody else did push-ups. We laughed so hard we cried. Her nickname was Jaws, my nickname was GI Jane and we would laugh until we cried. I mean, towards the end of boot camp my best memory is, in boot camp, we graduated our SARC, not our SARC. What’s the buddy course? S-A-B-C? The Self Aid Buddy Care. We graduated, the Senior Airman walked around and they said, “congratulations folks! You graduated.” And we turned and while I pretending to do CPR on her, she’s laying on her back and she sang in my ear, [singing] “looks like we maaade it.” And I laughed so hard that I cried. Now this girl’s much bigger than me and I just had to drag her ass across the ground like fifty yards. I mean we just, we laughed. We really laughed in boot camp because you have to. You have to or else you’ll cry. [laughs]
RH: Alright. Good to go.
MS: I had a really good deployment with my sister as well. We had a great time. We had stupid weird little nicknames for each other that we’ve had since our childhood – butt boy and monkey man. We wanted to be superheroes and we had these walkie-talkies. Since we moved to the hick countryside from the city we were these little brats who like would toilet paper people’s houses because we were bored and we had these walkie-talkies but we didn’t want to use our names because then the FBI would figure us out and we’d get arrested so we gave each other superhero names.
Well, when we were deployed we would leave notes for each other on our beds and eventually I started drawing cartoons for this. And just Skyping your mom and be sitting next to your sister at the same time while you were deployed. I mean, I really have some amazing memories. Just working with some incredible people.
I did a mud run with that pilot we were talking about earlier. I won’t say his name but he was Mister PT– and he wanted to talk to you about being physically fit all the time. He was on my team when I did a mud run with him one time and to no one’s surprise he finished the race a solid half an hour before me, but when he finished he then came back to where I was and talked to me while we finished the race together. At the time I was thinking, “why are you making me talk and run through mud? Can’t you tell I sound like a fat kid with asthma chasing a twinkie right now?” But he wouldn’t let me walk. I’m glad I have that memory with him. I swore after that I would never do another mud run. I’ve never done one since. We’re “Chair Force.” We shouldn’t be doing Marine obstacle courses in the first place. [RH laughs]
But the memories I have with him, I will always have. The weekend I was supposed to move to Virginia, on Friday – but of course finance messed up my paperwork – so I stayed for the weekend and I remember being upset and I was praying about it. I was like, “really, Lord? Why are you keeping me here another weekend? I want to get the hell out of here.” Well, on Saturday we were called into a briefing and found out that he died in Afghanistan. I will just never forget him and because of his life I have some amazing people. His parents are incredibly inspirational. And, you know, just the relationships. They’re so many happy moments and so many amazing people and things that happened during my military years that I can’t choose just one happy memory, I really can’t.
RH: Alright. Good to go. What, if anything, do you miss about the military?
MS: Knowing who I was. I kind of lost my identity when I got out – just knowing who I was and that pride of being a jet mechanic in the Air Force. Knowing that I was serving my country, that sense of self purpose, that I’m important and I matter. Man, that is a struggle. That was a hard thing to lose. [sobs]