New Year; New Blog; New Perspective

By Kristen Kavanaugh

I always get excited about the beginning of a new year.  I see it as a time to reflect on the events of the past and plan for the year ahead.  By most accounts 2011 was amazing.  It is hard to choose a particular event that captures the full essence of the year, but there was one moment that stood out for me personally that I would like to use as the launching point for this blog.

I was approached by one of my clients after a recreational therapy session in November.  He, a combat hardened Marine sniper with multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan under his belt, asked if I had prior military experience.  I know this seems harmless, but in the mental health profession these types of personal questions bring up a little anxiety.  I answered his question with a simple head nod.

Outside of the obvious professional reasons, I hesitated to engage any further in this conversation with the Marine.  If the truth were known, there have been reasons why I haven’t felt especially proud of my military service.

First, as a Finance Officer, I sometimes felt as though my job was as not as integral to the success of the mission as those who served in combat arms roles.  Early on in my schooling I remember joining in with other students to mock graduates who became finance officers.  Then after I graduated, I became one and the jokes suddenly weren’t as funny.  It was difficult for me to feel proud when others devalued my contribution because it was not combat arms related.

At times, I found it difficult, as a woman, to feel proud about my service.  The military is still a boys’ club.  Although more and more opportunities are being afforded to women, the military culture remains hyper-masculine and our contributions are sometimes overlooked or discounted.  I felt as though the only way to gain the respect of my male counterparts was to suppress my feminine qualities and become one of “the guys” to the extent that I could.

Serving as a closeted lesbian was my most difficult struggle.  For the nine years that I served under the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, I purposely kept my professional and personal lives separate.  I felt my service in the Marine Corps was an isolated world apart from my true identity.  How could I feel proud about my service when I pretended that it didn’t exist outside of regular working hours? 

This made me wonder if this is a common feeling for female service members or non-combat arms service members in general?  Is it especially common for lesbians, who until late last year, were forced to serve in silence and not receive public praise for their accomplishments within the military?  It was a common feeling for me until my perspective was changed last November.

Marines are known for their relentless persistence, and the sniper was no exception. His persistence wore on me, and I told him that I was previously an accountant in the Marine Corps.  I followed that statement with a shoulder shrug and eye roll as I normally do.  It was his reaction that forced me to really reflect upon my service and the role women play in the military.

He reminded me to be proud of my contribution.  He said that the Marine Corps is like a hand and each occupational specialty is like a finger: we have our individual missions, but we are most powerful when we work together and support one another.  That hit home for me on so many levels.  As a non-combat arms Marine, I felt as though my job was an essential part of the overall mission and that others appreciated our contribution.  I felt validated.  As a woman, I felt, for the first time, my gender was a non-issue.  I felt accepted by a member of the hyper-masculine majority despite maintaining feminine qualities.  The repeal of DADT gave me permission to start integrating my prior military service into my personal narrative.  This conversation gave me an opportunity to talk about my service without feeling ashamed of being a lesbian.       

I was enlightened by my conversation in November, and I continue to be inspired by the women who are pushing the gender boundaries within the military.  Our role as women is important and the military is more powerful because of our contribution.  I am inspired by the brave women who have volunteered to join Female Engagement Teams and Cultural Support Teams.  I am in awe of these warriors and their willingness to venture into new territory.

It is not only about the women who have willingly stepped into combat roles.  It is about the generations of women that have paved the way for us to get to the point where we are accepted among our peers.  It is about women, straight and lesbian, officer and enlisted, who continue to show up to work every day in support roles across every branch of service and wholeheartedly honor their commitment to serve our country.  Despite the challenges of working in a heterosexual male dominated organization, they continue to thrive and succeed.  These women work hard and deserve to be proud of their accomplishments on and off the battlefield, as do those that have gone before them.

The sniper and this new generation of female warriors have given me a new perspective for the new year.  No matter your job, your gender, or your sexual orientation, if you serve with passion and can walk away at the end of each day knowing that you have given it your all; you have directly contributed to making our Armed Forces the most powerful fighting force in the world.

About Kristen Kavanaugh

Kristen Kavanaugh is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and former Marine Corps Captain. Kavanaugh attends the University of Southern California where she is working toward her Master’s in Social Work with an emphasis in military social work. She is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Military Acceptance Project (MAP), a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting acceptance of all marginalized populations within the military.

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  1. Zoomie
    February 7, 2012 at 9:17 PM

    “How could I feel proud about my service when I pretended that it didn’t exist outside of regular working hours?”

    Everyday I put on a uniform that says “U.S. Air Force.” How can I not be proud? Even pre-repeal.

    “This made me wonder if this is a common feeling for female service members or non-combat arms service members in general? Is it especially common for lesbians, who until late last year, were forced to serve in silence and not receive public praise for their accomplishments within the military?”

    I work in a shop that doesn’t deploy except one slot every 4-6 months plus TCN taskings. A lot of the guys in my shop are ready to go & waiting for their turn. Being one of the experts for the area that the deployment focuses on, I’ve been asked if I wanted to a couple times. I have declined due to DADT. I couldn’t imagine being half a world away & not being able to talk to or e-mail my partner of almost 10 years. Now, even though we could communicate via gov’t phones & computers, she still wouldn’t receive any of the benefits of straight spouses. I would likely continue to decline opportunities until I am told I am going. I’ve never felt that I’ve contributed any less from CONUS as all the parts from our AOR jets are shipped back to CONUS anyway.

    As far as accomplishments, being gay had nothing to do with. I was recognized as my performance warranted. I was Amn of the Qtr for both my sq & group as an E-3. Last year, I was Amn of the Year for the Honor Guard. I’ve also earned an AFAM for HG. My partner was even there for my AFAM (as a friend, of course). The hardest part was her not being able to be there when I put on E-4. Thankfully, by the time my line number for E-5 comes up, she’ll be able to be there.

    • Kristen
      February 8, 2012 at 7:43 PM

      Thank you, Zoomie, for your response and for your service. It is important to recognized that we all play a role in the greater mission of the military, and it sounds as though you have made a considerable contribution to your unit and the Air Force despite the restrictions of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Keep up the great work and continue feel proud every day you don the uniform!

  2. Jason Lewellen
    January 31, 2012 at 11:43 PM

    You’ve come a long way from the concrete at Miramar…I am and continue to be amazed by the woman you’ve become and am equally proud of the work you’re doing to right the ship for all. Semper Fi, Marine! You are loved and missed greatly…

  3. Vanessa
    January 31, 2012 at 3:57 PM

    I see you as a strong, intelligent, exceptionally wonderful woman. I am so glad that you have found an outlet to reach out to others who are where you have been and need to know that others have overcome these challenges. I am certain you are an inspiration to many and will help women, and men, move beyond their fears and live and work in a more accepting military environment. Shine on and lead the way!

  4. Joe Costello
    January 31, 2012 at 3:20 PM

    Yes, the contribution of our female warriors continues to be devalued. Happily, it is less so with each passing day. I’ve served in combat with women who particpated in missions outside the wire. There were no complaints, no issues and they were everything you would expect; Professionals! Be proud and nice blog, Kristen.

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