As the events coordinator for the SBU chapter of Her Campus, I am responsible for planning all chapter events for each month. Although not required, we organize one service event per month.
November is National Veterans and Military Families Month, marked by Veterans Day on November 11th.
I was planning a service event with a local organization when my dad called and suggested I work with veterans or the military. We have cleaned headstones at the Gerald B. H. Solomon National Cemetery, a cemetery reserved for those who have died in service or been honorably discharged from the military, so he suggested I organize something similar.
With a heavy course load and multiple other club obligations, I was immediately overwhelmed, so I designated one day to get it all together.
I contacted the Cattaraugus County Veterans Service Agency employees, who connected me with Mount View Cemetery Veterans Field of Honor and Francisco “Frank” Morales, a retired U.S. Army Master Sergeant and director of the Military Aligned Student Program.
When I had a solid plan, I brought up the idea to our president and set it in motion. On November 5th, our members helped clean about 350-400 headstones at Mount View Cemetery to give back to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. It was incredibly moving and humbling.
Frank Morales reached out again to plan a thank-you lunch for the volunteers and suggested I interview Jennifer Helie, a student veteran at St. Bonaventure University.
Helie had so much knowledge and insight, and I was excited to work with her.
Where and how long did you serve? What branch did you serve?
JH: I was in the United States Air Force from October 1999 to April 2003. My duty station was Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, and I was an Airborne Surveillance Technician aboard the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) E-3 Aircraft.
What was it like being a woman in the armed forces?
JH: Being a woman in the armed forces was an experience unlike any other I’ve had in my life. It was humbling, empowering but also defeating at times. Women were treated differently in both extremes. At times, we were singled out and made fun of and dismissed, while other times, we were valued assets, depending on leadership and squadron members. Many times, we were taken advantage of in different aspects, but that just made us work harder.
What has been the biggest challenge you have faced as a woman in the military, and how did you overcome it?
JH: The biggest challenge as a woman in the military for me was to be seen as an asset and live up to the military’s standard. To show women are capable and hold qualities that are different than men but still very valuable to the mission. Like I said, I worked harder, I did more than expected, and I never let them know what they did and how they treated me affected me.
What is the most valuable lesson you learned while in the military?
JH: Honestly and unfortunately, the most valuable lesson I learned was to not trust the government. They have their best interest in mind, and that supersedes anything else.
But after years of reflection, I am able to value and be grateful all the beneficial things I experienced while I was in the service. I learned the value of working towards a mission with a team and how discipline, communication, and consistency are integral to striving to be a better human being.
What does the term “student veteran” mean to you?
JH: Student veteran means to me a sense of belonging, understanding, and service. It also means purpose and community.
What, if anything, inspired you to go back to school?
JH: I did not want my service to define me. I want to continually strive to be a better human being and live a life of purpose. Most of all, I want to show my children that it’s never too late to work towards everything you want to be. Even though there is a struggle in life, if you keep working towards a life that you are proud of, you will never lose.
What’s your favorite part of St. Bonaventure University as a student veteran?
JH: It’s definitely being with other veterans in the lounge. Connection with people that understand what only 3% of the population will ever understand.