Writings by women, for women, and about women.
I am a Disabled Woman Veteran of the United States Army. I rarely get to share stories with female veterans about their experiences. I added this page to my blog to allow us a forum to express our feelings and thoughts on your military journey be it past or present.
I have a lot to say although some people don’t want to hear it. I invite other women in the military or Female Veterans of the Armed Forces, no matter what branch of service you were in to send their words to add to mine. I want to know your personal experience. I am certain that there are plenty of women who would love to know that they are not the only ones going through a particular triumph and/or trial. This is one of my experiences. Hopefully, it will inspire others to send their story in their own words for me to post here be they short stories, poems, or other art mediums on this subject.
Gains and Losses
By: Abigail D. Engel
Army dress green is not a color that is designed to look great draped over a proliferate belly. It is designed for straight, tight bodies that do not need room to breathe. Today is no different from any other day that I have experienced over the last eight and a half months. I’m standing here on this cold February morning with swollen ankles and a frustrated heart that screams at the thought of another morning standing in this damp bay breeze, breathing in the stagnate air of salty seaweed and canary yellow sweat suits. I sincerely need to escape this nightmare. My mind is pleading for rest. I positively cannot stand the idea of walking the required four miles today, and I need to put my feet up.
The morning exercise group is slowly forming up for the march toward physical training. Believe me when I say that in my present state, marching is not something done easily with a body that leans toward resting in an attempt to reinforce its natural tendency to tip forward with the weight of the child growing within my womb. I am so exhausted that I feel my heart pounding a rhythm so irregular that I cannot tell if it is hard, slow, or just slowly beating hard. Most everybody is standing and staring blankly into the window of the First Sergeant’s office, waiting for him to rise from his seat and bring the company to attention so that the march can begin. While waiting, I pace parturient steps back and forth between the soldiers that are standing around me. The weight and movement of ideal innocence within my womb keeps me on the move.
I look up and see the First Sergeant rising from his seat. I brace myself for today’s race toward fitness. As he slowly stretches the steps of the hallway, I stand here imagining him to be smiling at the forced torture he is about to command when virtue breaks through, baptizing the pavement beneath me, and alerting me to the fact that my baby has began its push toward the light. I smile deep within myself, walk up to my Platoon Sergeant and say, “Be sure and tell the First Sergeant why I’m not gonna be here.” He, having no clue that my training was about to be stretched from miles to hours, looks blankly at me and says, “Why?” I explain that my water has just broken and that I need to go to the hospital. Everybody within hearing distance looks at my feet to find the puddle of purity. The tone of the Sergeant’s voice rises with excitement as he asks me if I need a ride to the hospital. I laugh inside and say, “No.” It is, in my mind, incomprehensible that he dares to ask me such a question. How after participating in many months of mental and physical torture did he dare ask to participate, even in a small way, in the birth of the child that they fought for so long to vanquish?
I turn and walk to my car and begin to drive toward delivery with images of a real-life toy soldier standing in full uniform, pressed and pleated perfectly in boots that mirrored an image on a surface that rarely reflected light, as spit only touched to shine them when an occasion called for it. In my worst nightmare, I had not imagined I would have spent these last few months struggling on shifty and unstable legs while standing in front of the Company Commander answering questions with previously stated answers. And let me tell you that this was no easy task, as rubber legs do not understand attention.
“Yes Sir, I’m pregnant.”
“They tell me six weeks, Sir.”
I stood in that claustrophobic office breathing in old cigarette smoke and dust that swam in the lights of the barely opened horizontal, white, sun-blocking window slats that streaked across the many layers of white washed cement blocks that had been painted so often that the indentations in the porous surface were barely noticeable. The only color in the office was from a red, white, blue, and gold fringed American flag that stood taller than the blue and gold fringed flag of the Command that served as a reminder of the importance and responsibility that was the military man in front of me. Oh yes, there was green, Army green. How do you describe it olive, grass, grass mixed with yellow ochre and blended with patches of tree bark tan and browns that camouflaged us from the world; except, in this environment, it stood out like a green tank on desert white sand.
“No Sir, I don’t plan on getting back together with my husband, Sir.”
In my nervousness, I was hardly able to concentrate on his questions. Mentally, I kept adding responses that I was not allowed to speak without appending double jeopardy to my already precarious situation, and this would make the pregnancy the least of my problems. My mind began to respond with statements like,
“If he knew my soon to be ex-husband, he never would have asked me such a stupid question. To make matters worse, if the bastard found out about this mess, he’d think the baby was his and that he still had a hold on me.”
I decided almost as soon as I found out I was pregnant not to tell him. Besides, I knew someone would eventually tell him about it anyway.
As I stood there, I was sickened by the thought that once I signed my name on the dotted line, raised my right hand, and swore to defend the Constitution of the United States of America that I was unknowingly relinquishing any claim that I had to thoughts, self, or rights. I instantly belonged to a group of idiots who knew what was right for me and frequently made it clear to me that I had no say in the matter. My job was to conform to their rules and do as I was told. I really did not need a brain of my own, and it would only cause problems if I used the one I had. This pregnancy proved a problem to their system. It proved I had not been bent against my will as tautly as I should have been.
I never have been one to go with the natural flow of life as stipulated by others. I left home at sixteen and married a nightmare that was supposed to be the answer to my dream of escape from Missionary Baptist ideals of unattainable perfection and control over one’s self. I entered into worlds where damned men attempted to dominate me into their idea of who I was supposed to be. The realization that I was better off kneeling at the altar, bowing to the will of religion, instead of standing here listening to another lecture by another man on how my children would be better off without me, was at times overwhelming. In church, I could, at least, receive the occasional penitence for improper decisions. Here, as in my marriage, there was no mercy, only expectations.
My mind hypnotically returns to the reality of the Company Commander and his questions,
“Yes sir, I realize that I have a daughter at home, Sir.”
“No Sir, I’m not certain what I am going to do about my situation, Sir.”
I honestly had no clue what I was going to do. This pregnancy was not supposed to be able to happen. An Army expert healer told me I was sterile and could not have any more babies. She went so far as to remove the IUD that had successfully prevented that which was not permitted until it was removed.
“No sir, I have no intention of sending my little girl home to my mother.”
I slowly suck air between my teeth and momentarily expand my lungs to prevent me from saying out loud how disgusted I am that the Army had a regular practice of forcing single young women to give their children away to the arms of the unknown with no knowledge of the environment that they spoke of. My young mind had spent half of my life trying to escape that place, and I was not under any circumstances going to send my daughter back there.
“Why would I do that, Sir? She’s my responsibility, and I need to be the one taking care of her, Sir.”
“Yes sir, I’ll let you know my plans when I get them worked out.”
I knew it would be a while before I faced him again with an answer to this problem, as I had no idea how to get myself out of this one. I said good day, projected a perfect salute, pivoted left, and marched out of his office telling myself,
“You’re in it big this time girly!”
Later, I thought,
“That wasn’t too painful. Maybe I’ll survive this after-all.”
If that wasn’t enough, the next day, I was called into my NCOIC’s (Non Comissioned Officer In Charge) office to listen to a rerun of the same conversation that I had just had the day before with the Company Commander. Only she added personal stuff about how when she was faced with a similar choice she considered her options and felt it was best for her to let her mother raise her son while she was in the service. She smiled and gestured toward a photo of her son and said, “That was eighteen years ago, and he’s doing just fine.” Even though I felt miserable at home and did not have many good things to talk about, at that moment, all my confused mind could think of was eighteen years without my mother was something I couldn’t even imagine.
Of course the Sergeant did her duty in reminding me that I had another option, “Abortion.” This had crossed my mind as a way out of this mess, but I knew, deep down in my heart, I could never do it. I had been pregnant four times previously. The first time, I was only six weeks along when it spontaneously aborted. I dealt with that one, as I was sixteen, in high school, and not yet married. It was for the best, besides the doctor explained it away by stressing that had the child lived, it probably would have been sickly. Later, I unexpectedly lost another pregnancy that had settled in my fallopian tubes, and I was really lucky that I lost it early because, had I not; I would have had to have the tube removed, limiting my chances of future pregnancies, so the doctor said. At least that time, I was seventeen and married, though not to the father of my first loss. The third time, I was so pleased. I carried that baby all the way to the last trimester. We bought baby furniture with Pooh and his friends marching gaily along the outer rail. I was showered with baby gifts by friends and loved ones. Daily, I sat breathing in new baby dreams while wrapped in plush Pooh bedding that caressed my skin like fuzzy winter caterpillar kisses. Everything was perfect, until one morning I woke up throwing up my life. I went to the doctor and discovered that my baby failed to thrive in uterus, and two weeks later, I delivered a still child that would not fill my heart and arms with pretty pink skin and whispers of sweet baby’s breath.
Still, I was determined to have a baby; I would not give up. Four weeks later, to my Physician’s dissatisfaction, I went to him and requested a pregnancy test. He dragged air into his lungs and released it so slowly that I felt I could see it floating through the room. He shook his head like a frustrated father and said, “It’s not possible for you to be pregnant. You just had a baby four weeks ago. However, to make you feel better, I will draw some blood and prove to you once and for all that you are not pregnant.” I smiled and he ended our conversation with “I’ll call you in a few days!” All I wanted that day was the pregnancy test; after all, I knew I was pregnant, and I was. The two and a half-year old precious pearl of perfection that my command was trying to get me to give to my mother is the result of that period. Divorced, single parents are problems for the military, but pregnant, single parents are three times the problem. In considering my options, I began to ask myself how after so many lost chances and prayers of, “Please, let me have a baby to fill the depression of my heart,” could I possibly invalidate the rhythm of the vital being that grew within me by pushing it into extinction? At that moment, I realized that this so-called “problem” was an extension to an answer of a series of invocations, and I knew I would stop at nothing to keep the soul that had suddenly grown into a promise.
One morning, a few weeks later, I received an unexpected phone call. I was to report to the Battalion Commander’s office, “Immediately!” I was so surprised by this request that I had no time to think of anything but the protocol used when addressing the boss’s boss’ boss. I stood in front of his desk at attention, barely exhaling the information that I was expected to pronounce to one who carries so much power. He kept me at attention for several pregnant hours declaiming the product of my contemplation in tones that declared stupid choices that reflected my ignorance onto the image of the Armed Forces. He pulled sixteen-year-old unmarried images of “I’m pregnant” from the indentations of my memory. He was my father requesting potatoes from the sister opposite me when I was closer to him than she was. He spoke the words my father felt in his stone, glacial gut but was too angry to release. I just stood there, at attention; taking in what was left out long ago; realizing that on some sick level this bastard was making a point. But, I really didn’t give a damn. I just stood there thinking,
“Who the FUCKING HELL IS HE? I am the one who has to live with my choice. He only has to see me for as long as I am standing in front of him. I wake up every damned morning knowing that nothing will be the same tomorrow. I have accepted that, and so will he.”
I hated that man. A chill filled the space that separated me from hell at that moment. After he was done with his questions and inappropriate comments, I stood firmly at attention and asked for permission to speak freely, and once he gave me permission to speak, I asked him
“If you can say all of this to me, what kind of father were you to your children, Sir?”
Needless to say, he was not very happy with me. He began yelling for me to leave his office. He, basically, “threw the book at me.” He made it a point to “bar me from reenlistment,” as “I was not fit for the military much less, motherhood.” I was promptly placed on barracks duty. I had to spend specific hours nurturing command vegetation, and spit shining servile quarters. I was to consider myself “lucky” that he was in control and knew that it was in the best interest of my daughter for me not to be locked up in fort lodging until I came to my senses. It was, also, my duty to consider the option of a single parent separation from my service obligations.
After this, a peculiar stillness entered me. I was able to surrender to the demented demands of an Army of Asses. I perfunctorily performed the duties assigned. They tried to jingo me into submission. They took my car and made me walk four months of miles with a two-year-old tugging the line of the miles right beside me with a satisfaction that evidenced her understanding of my essential deep-pride at not being taken down. Rules of not standing in formation after about six months of pregnancy changed to make me and other women in my condition understand that the conduction of pride and pregnancy would no longer be tolerated. I bled from an incompetent cervix most of my pregnancy. The possibility of a loss was of no concern to my command. I was to be broken at all costs. My private living quarters were subjected to random inspections with statements that someone reported me as living in an unacceptable environment. It was nothing more than another attempt at proving me to be incompetent. The Platoon Sergeant was constantly amazed at the high cleanliness of my space. He said his wife was not nearly as clean as I was and that it was a waste of his time to keep doing the discriminate inspections, but they continued anyway. It was part of the game.
Months later, the minutes float like hours in my mind, as I drive to the hospital to deliver my defiance. I am, now, so tightly woven with the one that is to be removed that I push the problem of orders into indifference and direct my focus fully on the force of the delivery of my Melissa. My mind is dancing with the immaculate images of two daughters that will release some of the pressure of the depression in the hollow of my heart that still guards images of premature losses and procreated gains.