At the age of twenty, being a mother of a three and five year-old was not easy. Being a single mom on welfare living in a cockroach-infested apartment was not living. I thought I needed to learn discipline, so I walked into the army recruitment office. I spent my 21st birthday in boot camp on a five-mile road march. Many a mom has gone through boot camp. I was no exception.
Today I work towards building a network of women, many of them mothers, who have served in the US military. We seek ways to tell the truth and speak for peace. This Mother's Day is a time to remember the mothers serving in the military whose stories you're not likely to hear.
In 1987 I was activated and left for Honduras. Once you put on the uniform, you're a soldier and you do what is expected of you. You do your job and try not to think. You learn to shut your emotions off. When I returned, I didn't talk with my sons about these life changes. You just come back, go to work, feed your kids.
In 1993 I went to drill sergeant school. Another eight weeks away from home. As a woman in the military, I had to eliminate showing any emotion or insecurity. It affected how I raised my sons. They knew what it was like to be in the military at very young ages. You lose emotions; you lose yourself and connections to others. They drove it out of me in boot camp and finished it off by sending me to Iraq. I don't feel like a very good mom or partner these days.
My depression can be severe. Some days I can get out of bed, some days I can't. Other times all I can do is cry. The military teaches you to accept the rules. When you have PTSD, the VA's evaluation process seems to be the biggest obstacle to get help. Most veterans just give up.
Women are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and don't know what is happening to them. They can't be around their kids; they can't control their anger or sadness and no one can get close to them. They're suffering from PTSD but they pretend they're all right because they don't want to look weak.
When I started to speak about my experience, my son, a former Marine, thought I was crazy. He is still afraid for me. He thinks someone is going to kill me if I keep talking. But as a mother and a grandmother of eight, I feel there is an obligation to clear the path for our children. My tour in Iraq taught me this lesson.
It broke my heart to watch 20-year-olds walk in from patrol with faces dirty from the dust and heat -- looking as if they just came in off the playground -- with pictures of their loved ones on their armbands and their weapons on their backs, talking about how they just graduated high school.
Mothers cry for their babies, here and in Iraq. Mothers are the casualties that are not counted. We are the wounded that go untreated. We are also the healers that can change anything. We protect life because we give it. Send a prayer for the mothers and babies who have lost each other. This Mother's Day remember them, remember us. We need each other to heal. And for all mothers who feel helpless because they think they can't do anything to stop the war -- if you knew the truth you would try.
Eli PaintedCrow is a SWAN co-founder and a retired vet working for peace with the Women of Color Resource Center in Oakland, CA. SWAN (Service Women's Action Network) is a network of women veterans who have gathered to heal from the trauma of military service and war, to document our stories and to support our transformation from soldiers to peacemakers.