When I raised my right hand at the tender age of 17 and swore to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America, I never could have fathomed my life would turn out the way that it did. You know the anecdote "Truth is Stranger Than Fiction?" Well, that pretty much sums up my journey over the last decade. Going to high school in a tiny, one stoplight town, I jumped at the chance to escape, and six weeks after graduation I was on my way to bootcamp in good ol' Great Lakes, Illinois. The Navy's slogan at the time was, "Accelerate your life." And accelerate I did. I made the rank of E5 in three years, was junior sailor of the quarter and earned a Navy/Marine Corps Achievement Medal. I applied to the United States Naval Academy and was selected to attend the USNA prep school—something rare for an enlisted sailor. After serving for five amazing and incredible years that included a deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, I made the transition out of the military into college.
Although immensely grateful for the opportunity to attend college courtesy of Uncle Sam, I missed the Navy. I missed the challenges, the camaraderie and my life as a Navy sailor. Life in the military is difficult to replicate and almost impossible to explain to a civilian. The friends I made in the Navy were people I would give my life for...as they would for me. There were some veterans in college as well, but it just wasn't the same. Sitting in class, I would hear others talk about the stress of writing a five page paper or studying for an exam. Thinking back to doning an M-16 as a part of the Ship's Security Defense Force, training in damage control on the Repair Locker Fire Team, or balancing the 1 million dollar consumables budget I was in charge of, these issues paled in comparison. Everything I did in my new civilian life was easy compared to my time in the military and although I was thankful for the training I received and the things I experienced, after I honorably separated it also made me very nostalgic—and to a certain point, sad.
Years passed as I tried to find my new identity as a civilian. My husband is a retired Navy Chief and so we would continue some of our Navy lingo at home. Words like "gun-decking," "scuttlebutt" and "head" meant nothing to our non-Navy friends and I am sure they thought we were incredibly odd. Some of the best times I had were attending his command holiday parties because then I felt like I was reconnecting with my Navy past. Rather than speaking to the other wives sitting at the dinner table, I would be knee deep in Navy conversation with all the sailors sitting next to me. When we moved to Los Angeles in 2011, I wondered how tight knit the veteran community was here. To my surprise and delight, I have found more happiness here than I have had in years. A lot of that happiness has to do with the award-winning nonprofit organization, Pin-Ups for Vets. When I first met Gina, she expressed an interest in having me in the calendar, an idea that made me completely balk. Me? Former Petty Officer Second Class Jennifer Marshall...a calendar model? I shook my head vehemently, completely uncomfortable with the idea. But over the months, Gina asked a few more times and I began to discuss it with my husband. He reminded me that it is an exciting time for the veterans when the Pin-Ups For Vets Ambassadors go on VA hospital visits, and when the girls in the calendar are there to take photos with them, chat with them, and of course, sign their calendars. He sold me on the idea by simply saying, "Not only will you posing help the organization raise money, but imagine the look on a veteran's face when they are surrounded by pin-ups! That could be a badly needed distraction for some of them. I think you should swallow your discomfort and do it." Boy, was he right. And honestly, it's not just the calendar stuff that is great. The absolute best thing is walking into a room and finding that vet that you automatically click with. It could be anything...the branch they served in, the conflict, their job in the military. There is always a special thrill for me when the vet in that hospital bed or nursing home is Navy. Lastly, I must admit...I have a soft spot for older female veterans. Their sacrifice and service made it possible for women like me to serve and I am eternally grateful.
Perhaps the most touching moment I have experienced was a visit here in Los Angeles. We stopped to speak to a WWII era female veteran who was sitting quietly in a wheelchair. We asked her how she was and about her service. I saw something in her eyes at that moment...She looked at us and started weeping. She explained that she wasn't sad, just that she had "never seen so many beautiful young people before." Right then I looked around and realized that we were all dressed as she probably dressed back then when she was not on duty. For that second, she had mentally traveled back in time and experienced a part of her youth she hadn't thought about in years. We chatted and hugged and thanked her for her service and I walked away, touched to the core.
Pin-Ups for Vets has changed my life. It has allowed me to embrace the femininity I gave up while serving in the military. It has given me purpose again—we are making a difference, one visit at a time. Never again will a veteran sit in the hospital for weeks or months on end without a visitor if the Pin-Ups For Vets Ambassadors are around! I couldn't be prouder of the group of female ambassadors—especially my fellow female vets. They are some of my best friends and I am thankful every day for the things I have experienced as a result of volunteering with this nonprofit organization.
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I was fortunate enough to serve this great nation in the United States Navy from the age of 17 to 22, honorable separating as a second class petty officer (E-5). During my time in the Navy, I worked as an aircraft handler, forklift operator, logistics specialist, and also worked on the ship's fire team and security defense force. One of my most important collateral duties was working for the USS Theodore Roosevelt's Sexual Assault Victim Intervention (SAVI) program, teaching policies and procedures to new sailors checking in onboard and being available to advocate for victims of sexual assault.