“Facing Stigma” with Colleen B.

“I was born and raised in Northeast Minneapolis. I think I had a pretty good childhood, my parents were happily married, my two brothers and I had plenty of kids to play with in a safe neighborhood, where we walked to a small Catholic grade school. My parents were very involved in all of our lives and taught us about service through their actions in the church, community, and education. I wanted to find a way to serve after college, so I began my nursing career in the Navy. I was commissioned as a Navy Nurse Corps Officer in December 1996, then reported to Newport, Rhode Island for six weeks of Officer Indoctrination School before my first assignment at Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base in California. It was peace time back then so it wasn’t quite the same risk that it would have been in the last 20 years. It was like that all the way leading up tp September 11th, 2001. At the time I was stationed in Upstate New York and the events of that day had a big impact on me. I was a medical recruiter on my way to a college career fair near the city, and I remember we had to pull off the road when we heard the initial reports of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center on every radio station. My partner and I found the student center, where all these students were gathered around one small TV. We walked into the room in our dress blues and stood there watching in stunned silence with these kids, many of whom were from the city, and some who clearly had loved ones potentially in danger or directly impacted that day. I’ll never forget one girl in particular who looked at me in my uniform and asked what should we do now; the only answer I could come up with was that we needed to take care of each other, now more than ever. I guess as a nurse that was the only thing I could think to say.

After 9/11, I continued as a recruiter until 2003, when I was assigned to a Naval Hospital in Naples, Italy. The U.S. had just invaded Iraq and a lot of casualty care was needed. We provided medical support for the influx of casualties sometimes overflowing onto the tarmacs in Germany. By that time, my younger brother had decided to join the Marine Corps and was on active duty. I felt like he joined because he’d seen how much pride and purpose my friends and I’d gotten from serving. He quickly deployed to Iraq while I was still in Italy. Then in June 2005, I transferred to Washington, D.C., where I was stationed at Bethesda National Naval Medical Center. One of my collateral assignments was rotating as the Nurse Supervisor for the night shift, doing rounds, managing incoming patients, and providing the morning briefing for the Admiral with details for every combat casualty that was in house. It was a hard year for me because we saw so much trauma and death from the war. At the same time, both my brother and fiancé were deployed to Iraq, so I had this underlying fear that we’d get a list of casualties, and one of their names would be on it. Eventually, they both came home safe, but that looming fear never left. In addition to the significant stress already present, during my first week in D.C., I was physically and sexually assaulted. I tried to pretend like it didn’t happen, partly, because I didn’t know how to deal with it. For better or worse, I felt like I had to suppress it. I didn’t want to be a victim, nor have this be my first impression at this new career-changing command. Not to mention, both my little brother and my fiancé were in harm’s way, and I didn’t want anything to take away from their focus. I knew pretending like nothing happened wasn’t healthy, but it was a survival mechanism that seemed to work for several years. I didn’t start to unpack and deal with that year until five or six years later when I was out of the military.

After getting out of the Navy, I moved back to Minnesota to be near my family and worked as a nurse. A few years after leaving active duty, my mental health was suffering significantly. I saw a therapist that was already seeing my dad. She tried to address my feelings about my time on active duty, but I dismissed her concerns, and didn’t discuss my military experience with her. We made some progress and I didn’t seek help again for a few more years, when I was at a point where I felt like I really needed to get help, or my life was in jeopardy. I went to the VA for help for the first time over six years after leaving active duty. It took a few years, but I found a therapist that I felt comfortable with, and eventually made some significant breakthroughs that have saved my life and got me to a point where I was no longer just surviving. After 13 years back in Minnesota and many hours of therapy and hard work, I decided to sell my house and move back to upstate NewYork. I was finally ready to start living my life again. It was a leap of faith, but I felt more like myself than I had since I left the Navy, and I was ready for the next chapter of my life to begin. It was challenging at times, and when my ability to work changed due to other physical and mental service-connected issues, my mental health suffered. My local VA wasn’t able to meet my need for increased therapy, and referred me to the community. Fortunately, I found a therapist that was involved with the Headstrong Project, and I began more intense therapy. I had to meet with my therapist, Kathleen virtually at first because of COVID, but we made steady progress from the start. I’ve been in therapy through Headstrong for about 18 months, and don’t know what I would’ve done without this resource to help me. I feel like I have the strength and tools in my bag to thrive now. I’m living my own life and not just surviving or living vicariously through others. I’m starting to better understand who I am and what I am capable of. I’m more healthy than I’ve been in the last ten years, and more socially connected than I have been in the last twenty. I have finally reclaimed my life, and look forward to the future. I honestly believe, that I am alive today, because I found Headstrong at exactly the right time, and I’m incredibly grateful.”