According to the Department of Veteran Affairs , the United States has around 21 million veterans. A little more than 2 million of these veterans are women.
While Veteran’s Day on Nov. 11 honors all veterans, Women in the Military Appreciation Day, on Nov. 7, specifically celebrates the women who have served or are currently serving in the military.
To pay homage to both Veteran’s Day and Women in the Military Appreciation Day, The University Echo interviewed three female veterans, who have ties to Chattanooga, about their service.
Haley Sebastian was in the Marine Corps for 16 years. During her last four years of service, she was a drill instructor.
Sebastian joined the Marines before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. While in the military, her Military Occupational Speciality was being a motor transport.
“I didn’t join because of [the attacks]. I joined because I wanted a challenge and to [be able to] do something different,” she said.
Sebastian said that she grew up playing a multitude of sports including hockey and soccer, and that her high school soccer coach, who was a Heavy Equipment Operator in the Marine Corps, was one of the people who influenced her to join the military.
“My junior year, we got a new soccer coach, and he had just gotten out of the Marine Corps, so during my junior and senior year, all I heard on bus trips to away games were stories about the Marine Corps. ”
She also comes from a family of military service. Her uncle was a combat engineer in the Navy, and she said the stories she heard from both her coach and her uncle got her thinking that joining the military herself would “be pretty cool.”
One day during her senior year of high school when military recruiters came to her school, she decided to talk to them more about enlisting.
“I went home from that meeting and asked my mom ‘Hey are you going to be home tomorrow around four? and she was like, ‘Yeah I’ll be home around three, why?” and I was like, “good because the recruiter is coming to our house.”
The recruiter had to meet with Sebastian’s parents because she was only 17 at the time. Her parents had to sign papers giving their consent for her to enlist.
She shipped out in March 2001 for bootcamp and ended up getting deployed twice to Iraq during the war. She also served at duty stations in California and Hawaii.
She has three kids, one in elementary school, one in middle school and a two year old.
“It’s been an interesting journey having kids and being in the military,” she said. “When we’re deployed and we’re gone, it’s literally like a piece of us is missing.”
While she is married now, Sebastian said that during the first part of her deployment she was a single parent, which made things even more difficult. During her deployment, her kids lived with her father in Michigan, where she is originally from.
She recalled one instance in which she got a two week period of R&R from a deployment in Afghanistan, during which she went and visited her kids. She said by the time she was able to visit, she had already been gone for nine months, which caused her son, who was one and a half years old, to not recognize her at first.
“It crushed my heart,” she said.
On Jan. 31 of this year, Sebastian finally got out of the Marine Corps. At the beginning of January she started school at UTC while she was on leave but still active duty. She is majoring in Civil Engineering and double minoring in Business Administration and Construction Management, and because a lot of her credits from the military transferred to UTC, she is currently a junior.
Sebastian said that she thinks women in the military have come a long way.
“Not only are we now able to vote, have a career and have kids, we can also fight for our families and our country. It’s not just the guys that are supposed to go do that,” she said. “The military has changed a lot. It’s not just that we’re supposed to go be a secretary or a nurse. We can go drive big trucks. We can go work in the armory. And now recently we’ve been allowed to be a combat MOS.”
Deborah James, a Chattanooga native, joined the military as a combat MOS in 1977.
She retired from the military in 1997 after serving 20 years, and this past August marked the 20th anniversary of her retirement.
Her first duty station was in Texas, and her career with the military has allowed her serve in Germany, Korea and Georgia.
She joined the military at a time when it was not co ed, but she said that didn’t mean that women did less work than the men did.
“The unit I was in, we didn’t have men in our basic training, but we did do the same basic training that the men did,” she said. “By the time the 80s rolled around the military was starting to become more co ed. It’s important that people realize that the military has changed so much over the years. It’s not an all male Army, an all male Marines, an all male Airforce, or Navy or Coastguard. We all serve side by side. Women have been a very instrumental part of the military.”
James is now a part of the Women’s Veteran Administration here in Chattanooga.
“Part of what we are trying to do is to get people to recognize there are a lot of women that were and are a great part of the military. [Women] aren’t just nurses. We want to show that we are here and we have a lot to contribute to the history of the military.”
James said that her own time with the military helped her find out more about what kind of classes she should take and what kind of career she should pursue.
“[The military] convinced me that because I’m a people person, I might want to do more with management, administrative or HR, so I started taking Human Resource Management classes.”
James already has an Associate’s Degree in Supervision Management. She said that her degree was “a good fit” for the experience she gained from her military career as a supervisor, which she did for 19 years.
“I’m looking forward to graduating in December because I’ll get to implement the things I learned in the military and a lot of things I’ve learned since going to college into my career.”
Kristin Cummings, is a junior from Clarksville, who is still currently serving in the Air Force.
She works in Personnel and said she doesn’t like going into too much detail about her work, but that she “does a lot of paperwork and administrative work.”
Cummings comes from a family of veterans, but she said that she is the first and only woman in her family, so far, to serve.
She said that the military is definitely male dominated, but that women have made strides in changing this narrative.
“Even in today’s society, the military is still considered to be a man’s world. We have a draft, but it’s only for men,” she said. “Women have pushed through and broke boundaries by just joining the military all together.”
Even though she is still serving, Cummings is also currently attending UTC. She is majoring in History and minoring in Communication.
About the Storytellers
This story was first published as “Appreciating woman in the military at UTC” in the November 14, 2017 edition of The University Echo.
“Appreciating women veterans of Chattanooga” was written by Kirsten Raper, who is the news editor of The University Echo. Since her time at The University Echo, she has also served as a staff writer and assistant news editor. In addition to her role as news editor for The University Echo, she is also the assistant editor for the Sequoya Review. She will graduate from UTC in May 2018 with a degree in English Literature and a minor in Communication. After graduation, she plans on pursuing a career in journalism.
“Appreciating women veterans of Chattanooga” was was photographed by Olivia Haynes. Olivia is an English major at UTC. She re-discovered her love for photography when she took Billy Weeks’ Photojournalism I class because she needed another elective. She then switched her minor to Communication and is now the assistant photo editor for The University Echo.
Copyright 2017, Kirsten Raper & Olivia Haynes, all rights reserved.