Commentary

April 19, 2013

The men I left behind

Capt. Belena S. Marquez
Air Force Special Operations Command public affairs

HURLBURT FIELD, Fla. – I am one of the thousands of women who have gone to war.

I am neither unique nor exceptional. If you ask around, you will hear stories similar to mine.

In the past, expectations for girls did not include the possibility of growing up to be veterans. We are not born warriors. We have been brought up in a way that makes it possible.

To me, Women’s History Month was not only about recognizing the trailblazers of my gender; it is also about celebrating the change in our culture that makes the men in my life, who support me as an Airman, the norm instead of the exception.

Father, brother, husband and friends; these are the men I left behind that early morning when I headed to Afghanistan.

It was cold outside, but I made a quick phone call.

“Daddy, I’m headed over now,” I said, when the line connected. We talked for a couple of minutes and before we hung up my dad whispered, “Be safe, sweetie.”

Then I left.

My dad stood behind me from the beginning. Growing up, he always told me that I could do and be whatever I wanted, as long as I worked hard for it. He made me believe in myself.

I ended up needing that belief on the days when I felt like I was not making a difference, when the mission seemed too tough to handle. When things were hard for me, my thoughts invariably went to the encouragement my dad always seemed to have just for me.

On the days when I needed to keep my chin up and stay positive, I thought of my brother.

My little brother was always trailing along behind me. When we were younger, he was always copying me and following my lead. He taught me that someone is always watching and learning from you.

That lesson came in handy when I interacted with a culture so very different from my own. For some of the Afghans I worked with, I was an oddity. As a member of Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul, I was a woman decked out in multi-cam when they were used to seeing the sun-bleached burkas that made the Afghan women in our area look like ghosts floating down the streets.

However, thanks to my little brother, I was used to being observed. I knew that they were learning about my culture through my actions, just as I was learning about theirs.

I discovered that the women I’d initially thought of as apparitions in the town were actually vibrant, opinionated and courageous as we worked together to build up the female journalist program.

For those in the service, it isn’t a shock to discover someone who is both a woman and a service member. Though sometimes it is hard for people who do not understand the military to fathom that my husband stayed and I left.

Throughout my deployment, my husband had my back. While I was doing convoys and key leader engagements, he was taking care of our household. He was the one responsible for staying positive when I called. During those conversations, I relied on him to remind me of the world outside of my deployment. He sent care packages and waited for me to return. He brought me flowers when my plane touched down and I was finally home.

The trip to Afghanistan and back reminded both of us that service is more significant than gender, but not everyone understands that.

When I was enjoying my post-deployment vacation, I remembered someone else I left behind. I thought about a conversation I had with an ex-boyfriend when I was in high school. We were talking about what we wanted to do when we grew up and I mentioned that I wanted to join the Air Force.

“Sweetie,” he said. “I don’t think that’ll be good for you. I don’t think you’re really tough enough for that.”

Well, he can kiss my Combat Action Badge!




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