The Last 3 Years: This Veteran's Journey Back to Herself
My transition home from my last tour in Afghanistan and assimilation into the civilian world was tough. No…tough doesn’t quite quantify it adequately. It’s been brutal. After what was more or less a rockstar 12 years in the Army, I had a “plan” to come home to. I had a stacked resume and I’d done my homework. I’d paid the resume experts and the “placement specialists.” I knew where I wanted to live geographically and I’d outlined my short- and long-term goals and lined up interviews with the companies that would get me there. The fact that there were multiple companies was, of course, only a redundancy because one of my top couple of choices was going to work out. I landed in the states on January 6, 2014 and I figured that after a few interviews and a couple of months to decompress I’d be moving into some bungalow in Houston or Raleigh or apartment in DC and getting started on the next phase of my life. But a couple of interviews went past…”thank you Miss Blake, we appreciate your time and we’re very impressed by your resume, but we have decided that it’s in our best interest to go with the candidate [mid-forties retired male officer in the power suit] that has just a bit more experience.” Then my brother was in a life-altering accident, and everything I understood about the universe got turned more or less upside down. Thirty-two days after I’d stepped foot back on American soil, he had to deal with something which shook him to his very core. And watching him endure that, trying to help, made me question everything I’d known. I mean I had SACRIFICED. I had paid the tolls, right? What was it for if it didn’t allow me to absolve those I loved from having to experience that kind of pain? I realize that wasn't exactly logical, but that was the struggle raging inside of me.
The job hunt continued to bear no fruit, but I drove on. A month went by, then three, and I stopped going out to the corner bar to meet friends for a drink. Six months passed and I realized that I probably needed to talk to someone…I couldn’t really explain it, but I just didn’t FEEL like myself. The little girl-turned woman that you had known – brazen and bold, a little obnoxious, always wanting to be in the middle of things – she seemed to have disappeared. By mid-summer I’d taken a part time job at a gun store. My savings had been completely drained and I’d had no luck finding anything full time despite literally hundreds of applications. I left my house for nothing other than to go to work. I had gone to the VA, but the wait times were astronomical and the counselor/psychiatrist I was assigned to always came across as if I was wasting her time (I later discovered that she was fired for cause). I wasn’t sleeping, which was nothing new. I steadily gained weight because I couldn’t stand the thought of being out in the world among people so I spent most of my time in my apartment binging on Netflix and ordering takeout.
Looking back now I know that I was spiraling quickly into a deep dark hole, but at the time I just felt no joy or inspiration to do anything except job hunt online and drag myself to my meaningless $10/hour job, where I was regularly challenged and mocked by the “know-everything” 20-year-old tacti-cool dudes who refused to believe that this chunky, sullen blond chick was ever anything special. I became testy and defensive because I suddenly had to justify my service and my experiences and my qualifications to a bunch of kids who couldn’t even speak the same language, let alone understand the magnitude of what I’d undergone for the past 12 years of my life.
In early fall the gun store owner instructed me to start a women’s shooting league at our range. I kind of scoffed at this because after so many years of being essentially surrounded by men, what did I know of leading a bunch of soccer moms and career girls? But this is what the boss wanted and I needed the job, so I researched the few organizations that she gave me to choose from. I settled on one based solely on the fact that it required all of its local and regional leaders to have obtained NRA instructor certifications. They emphasized legitimate firearms training and responsible gun ownership, and encouraged participation in the various shootings sports, so I applied to become a facilitator with A Girl & A Gun. Nothing really changed in my personal life, but suddenly I was required to flip that leader switch and get up on stage again in order to teach. These women wanted more than just to learn how to shoot…they wanted to feel comfortable in an uncertain environment and they looked to me to give them affirmation, and I remembered how passionate I was about training. I had become certified as an Army instructor in 2008 and loved every minute of developing curriculum and designing training iterations for Soldiers preparing for overseas deployments. I ran training cycles while in Iraq and Afghanistan and loved that look on someone’s face when they put the pieces together on a new skill or grasped a concept that had previously eluded them. Now, at this little range in nowhere South Carolina, I had found that again. These women warmed to me in a way that made me feel simultaneously inadequate and gratified. I was almost overcome by fear that I wouldn’t have enough knowledge or expertise to give them, but they were so forgiving and so positive that I couldn’t help but be energized by their enthusiasm.
One of my chapter’s members paid me for some private coaching and then dragged me to a 3-gun match two days after Thanksgiving. I literally only went because I felt that it made sense to keep this client happy…and a day at the range sounded a bit more appealing than another day spent in my dark apartment watching Netflix and eating pizza. It wasn’t long after my first shaky shots that morning that I knew I’d found something special. These people were warm and welcoming, while not missing a single opportunity to give each other hell. They were honest, hardworking, all-American folks and they didn’t care how much weight I’d gained or that I couldn’t load a semi-automatic shotgun. They were impressed with my handling of the rifle and transition to pistol and after I mentioned that I’d gotten that experience in uniform they genuinely wanted to hear some stories. They invited us out for wings and beer afterward and I laughed and cut up and it felt natural…familiar. On my way home I knew that I’d found a community again. I was hooked on 3-gun, and yes I loved the sport and I reveled in the fact that I was pretty okay at it, but far more importantly I’d found a reason to leave my dark little cave and a group of people whom I could relate to and rely on.
In the span of a few months that crazy redneck queen (who became a dear friend, steadfast supporter, and constant source of inspiration) that dragged me to my first match pushed me to shoot a whole bunch more, I think we shot 12 matches in the first 3 or 4 months. I’d sell something or work extra hours to make a match fee and when I couldn’t she’d insist that she didn’t want to go alone and pay my way. At the time I didn’t think much of it, but I came to appreciate her true generosity of spirit and the fact that she knew I needed a little help that went far deeper than the checks she wrote. She would tell me at every bump in the road and every little celebration that I needed to learn to “trust the process.” I began to believe her. I was still a disaster…still not really sleeping, eating too much, drinking too heavy…but come time to practice or head to a match I was up before dawn and couldn’t wait to be out there. When I began teaching the ladies of our little chapter of A Girl & A Gun I felt that little spark inside of me really begin to gather strength. I started to see glimmers of myself again, but I hadn’t really started to climb out of that hole yet.
Through all of this I never stopped applying for jobs and attempting to capitalize on resources available to Veterans (which is a headache that I’ll share another time), and in early summer of 2015 I managed to get an interview with the regional distribution center for CVS Pharmacies. They loved me, and I felt like a champion walking out of there. They offered me a position as a logistics manager a few days later and, having been out of work for so long at that point, I jumped on it before really examining what it was they wanted from me. In about 3 days I realized that I’d made a mistake, but I felt like I had no other options, so I stayed….and in a matter of weeks all of the progress I’d begun to make melted away. That job sucked my soul dry.
After a couple of months there I went out to see my brother over Labor Day in Texas and, sitting on the tailgate of his truck drinking a beer after watching him play, in his oh-so-subtle fashion, he asked me what exactly my f*%^ing problem was. I lost it. I broke down in sobs that felt as if they were going to shatter me. Everything that had been pent up for the past two years came rushing out of me. How had I ended up where I was? What had I done so terribly wrong? Had I really done everything of value that I was supposed to do with my life by the age of 31? Was this all there was left for me? As most men are, he was SUPER comfortable with all of the tears, but to his credit he said something to me in that moment that quite literally altered my path. He asked me why, if I was so miserable, I didn’t just quit and move and do something different. I was flabbergasted! I couldn’t QUIT! I had just gotten this job and it was a “good job” for a big important company and that’s what was expected of me. He kind of looked at me cockeyed and asked me what the hell I was talking about. He didn’t have all the answers, but if I wanted to drop everything and go to California and work horses for him for the winter, he’d pay me to do it.
We drank some more.
I flew home on Monday and gave notice Tuesday afternoon.
Less than a month later I’d sold everything that didn’t mean anything to me, packed up the truck with my dog and the guns, and set out across the country to go work horses for my little brother. I didn’t really know what on earth I was doing, but I knew if I didn’t try something different then I might just fade away into nothing, I might cease to exist, and I wasn’t quite ready to throw in the towel.
That may have been the most impulsive decision I’d ever made…but it’s turned out to be the best decision, also. There’s something about doing hard work outdoors that clears some of the garbage out of your brain. Hours on horseback exercising his ponies, early mornings, hot-as-hell afternoons, dusty pastures and crazy-ass thoroughbreds, not being able to say “I don’t feel like it” and staying in bed…because they HAD to get fed or doctored or prepared for games. I was still a little bit of a sh*t show, but rather abruptly I began to recognize myself again. Even while I was stuck out in the communist republic of California I was able to maintain my contact with the shooting world and continue to build my reputation as a strong instructor in the classroom and a hard-working woman of integrity and compassion on the range. A few months after I set off on this new path I got a call from an old friend asking if I was free to work a training contract for Special Operations Command. I flew out two days later and, after two weeks in the field in North Carolina doing Army stuff, was asked back for some follow-on work. I began to think: I love teaching, I love being around firearms and people who appreciate my experiences and the value of hard work, I love the idea of once again contributing to something much bigger than myself….why hadn’t I thought of this before? Obviously corporate America wasn’t for me, and maybe that was ok after all. Maybe I could blaze my own trial, walk my own path, and maybe it was ok if it didn’t look the way I thought it was supposed to when I took off the uniform.
I began searching high and low for domestic instructor positions that were supporting the Department of Defense. I kicked my resume out to dozens of online job postings and begged favors of anyone I could think of that may know of someone in the military community who was hiring civilian contractors. I got a little bit more work on intermittent support contracts and then, while I was living in a tent on an exercise in some swamp outside of Ft. Bragg, I got an email asking if I was available for a telephone interview. I literally hiked out early the next morning and sat in my car with the phone plugged into the charger while this guy described what was, for me, a dream job. Firearms and tactics instructor preparing Soldiers and Airmen for combat and contingency deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, and Southeast Asia. I flew up for an interview two days after I finished that exercise and had my first day on the job ten days later.
All of that toil and strife and hardship and challenge had proved worthwhile. I was again doing something that I loved – something that I was GOOD at that contributed to the bigger picture. I kept competing, traveling the country to work and shoot. I also decided that the relative stability of my new job offered the perfect opportunity to go back to school. I [finally – let’s not dwell on the length of time this took] finished my Bachelor’s degree and began my MBA through a satellite campus on the base. I got in to a good VA clinic and began to understand that some of my “demons” were just common challenges that anyone with Post Traumatic Stress faces and spent time with a competent counseling team. I took the time to have old deployment-related injuries treated. I was sleeping again.
5 months to the day after I moved north to begin work, my company lost the contract and we were all out of a job with about 7 days’ notice. I felt certain that I was going to spiral back down the rabbit’s hole I’d just climbed out of. My way of combatting that was to jump on a storm-response contract, and I took off for North Carolina to help clean up after Hurricane Matthew the same night we discovered for sure that we were out of jobs. When that wrapped up a few weeks later I headed to Kentucky for the A Girl & A Gun Fall Fest Ladies’ Invitational 3-Gun match.
I would be shooting it, but I was also one of the senior staff members. Women came in from all over the country for 4 days of training and competing in the beautiful sprawling hills of the Blue Ridge. Women I hadn’t spoken to in months were overjoyed to see me! Some sought me out to help calm their nerves or reassure them that they hadn’t gotten in over their heads. One even brought her sobbing friend to me because she felt I could do a better job explaining that courage didn’t mean an absence of fear, but being afraid and going ahead anyway. Any shred of a threat of falling apart that may have lingered in me was pushed out by the incredible sense of purpose and value that was restored to me in those days.
I drove home (after a stop or two on the bourbon trail of course…we were after all in Kentucky) feeling as though I could tackle this latest obstacle. Truly believing that I could be successful and not succumbing to the sense of failure that had briefly threatened to envelope me again. I worked out a schedule that would allow me to complete my MBA in a year, knowing the stipend that came along with my GI Bill tuition assistance would keep my head above water financially. I found extra work as a substitute teacher at the local middle school and I again committed to a few short-term Department of Defense training contracts. And I redoubled my focus on competitive shooting. Just after the beginning of the year I got the great news that I’d acquired my first official sponsor and I set my sights on some pretty lofty personal goals.
Those women I didn’t know what to do with a couple of years ago had inspired me so much that the lingering idea of Valkyrie Ink, something I’d thought about on and off for the better part of 6 years, suddenly sprang into reality. With the help of an incredibly talented artist and the support of friends and family around the country - because they BELIEVE in me - we’ve launched this venture. And I’m still overwhelmed with joy and pride each time I see one of our shirts or hats on a woman I admire. So…things are not easy…but I’m starting to wonder if they’re really supposed to be? I am undoubtedly in the best place I’ve been in years. There are moments that I’m almost brought to tears because I see inside of me again the strong, passionate, capable woman that I had given up for dead. I am humbled by and indescribably grateful for the support and encouragement of friends and family members who have stood beside me. Without them, I don’t know if I would be standing here today.