Wow, It’s Been a Year

By Shannon Martin McClain ‘98

When I told the ladies who are the heart of Sisterhood of Mother B (SOMB) that I wanted to write something commemorating our first year and looking forward to the second, Kate asked if our theme was, “Wow, it’s been a year.” And, I think that, yes, that is the theme. Wow, it’s been a year. When we started this journey, we had no idea what we could do (or what it would take), but we had a common vision: to provide a platform for USNA Alumnae to share their voices; to improve the network of support for women graduates; and to help develop our future leaders. We wanted to do all of these things with the overarching goal of improving the institution that formed us; It was an ambitious vision, but we exceeded our own expectations. We hope we have met yours.

The SOMB is first and foremost, a platform for Alumnae to share their voices. To that end, this year, we published 39 blog articles and 15 Waypoints podcasts featuring women (and a few men) from different eras, covering a range of subjects. From the funny stories shared Army Week on Waypoints to the sometimes difficult memories of the women of the early classes and the harrowing accounts of sexual assault, your words, and those of the Seven Sisters, have inspired me. They made me laugh, cry and feel every emotion in between. They connected me to the Sisterhood in ways I could not have imagined last year.

We have had 52 weeks of Waypoint Wednesdays, Throwback Thursdays, and Five for Fridays on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The goal with those posts was to spark memories and ideas while developing and strengthening the bond between women graduates of all years. Improving our support network and our common bond is difficult when less than 6000 women have attended the Naval Academy, and we live and work around the world. We have spent so much of our time isolated from each other, that we often felt alone in our experiences. Our weekly antics on social media have helped us connect with each other. Along the way, we shared something about ourselves – the awful swimsuits of the early years, the changing rules regarding uniforms in classroom buildings, the ebbs and flows of acceptance within the brigade. We shared moments of rebellion, perseverance and courage that bring us closer together. At least, it has brought me closer to all of you.

During three sales of SOMB gear, we raised money to support Friends of Naval Academy Music and send three young women to Naval Academy Summer Seminar. Those funds directly supported our vision of developing future leaders. We have highlighted the efforts of fellow alumnae who are working to develop our future leaders at USNA, in the Fleet and in their own communities. We hope their work will inspire and encourage others.

We measure so much of our lives today. There is a metric for nearly everything. How many words did we write? How many likes or followers did we gain or lose this week? How many link-clicks or listens? How much money did we raise? At the most recent Board of Trustees Membership Committee Meeting, the Women’s SIG received an annual “engagement” score of 35 (out of 100) based on the Women’s SIG engagement with the Naval Academy and the Alumni Association. That’s down from 51 last year.

I am not sure that metric fully captures the engagement of USNA Alumnae. I am just as interested in the quality of our engagement with alumnae as I am with the number of link clicks. Qualitatively, our year here at SOMB has been nothing short of amazing. You have blown us away with your engagement. Your responses have encouraged us and improved our processes on multiple occasions. There was the time when one of you stopped by the Pentagon office of one of our authors to thank him for being a part of the solution. Or when others asked us (not realizing it was us) if we had heard of the Waypoints Podcast and suggested we listen. You have suggested guests for Waypoints and contributors for the blog. When my editor’s inbox lights up with a new message from one of you thanking us for an article, sharing your own take on a subject, or submitting your own article I recognize the quality of your engagement. You comment and share our content overs social media with thoughtful responses.

One series and two stand-alone articles stand out when I look for the qualitative measure of our voice and engagement this year. The series is from Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention month. Those articles were difficult to read – more difficult to write. The feedback was humbling. Women who felt isolated and alone in their experiences discovered that they were not. Women who feared judgment for their decisions, actions, and/or lack of action were relieved to discover support. If authors and readers found some level of healing and closure from those articles, they were a success. “The Battle of Bancroft Hall,” highlighting the experience of Katherine Carradini who did not graduate, is very special to me. So often, non-graduates are unsure where they fit in this exclusive club of Naval Academy Alumni. Her article resonated with men and women who did not graduate and wished to find a connection to that part of their life. If we can bring those alumni into the network of support, then we are succeeding. Finally, our most recent article, by Julianne Vida shows a concrete effort to improve inclusion and diversity at the Naval Academy. Her words have inspired others to speak up and demonstrated the importance of our voices. Our voices matter. Our voices connect us. Our voices inspire others.

Those voices are stronger together, which leads me to our vision for the upcoming year. Beth Ann captured the spirit of our goals when she wrote me earlier this week. “I am so very proud to be a part of a group of badasses who recognize the power in what we’ve accomplished in a system that wasn’t built with us in mind. We must continue to bring representation, understanding, healing, awareness, unity, motivation and strength to identify and highlight true diversity, focused on a stronger Navy, Marine Corps and Nation.” We need practical actions to meet these lofty philosophical goals. What can we do and how can you help?

Engage with the Alumni Association and with the Naval Academy at large. Join a local alumni group and meet up with the area Women’s SIG members. Run for office within the alumni association. Become a Blue and Gold Officer. If you are local to Annapolis, participate in the Character Capstone program or volunteer to be a woman representative at the “Link in the Chain” Battalion events – since we won’t have women as part of the Link in the Chain classes for another six years. If you are transitioning from your Naval Service to the civilian workforce, attend a Service Academy Career Conference or a USNA networking breakfast. I know so many of you already are doing some or all of these things (and so much more), and if that’s you, we would love to share those experiences with the rest of the Sisterhood of Mother B through an article or social media post! All of these things improve our connection with each other and the Naval Academy, and they help the young women and men who will lead our Navy and Marine Corps in the future by normalizing women as full members of the alumni community.

Wonder Woman, Warner Brothers Pictures, 2017

As Kate so effectively pointed out in October, “Representation Matters.”

Help us raise money to meet the Women’s SIG fundraising goals. Those goals support SOMB’s efforts to help send more young women to Summer Seminar and pay the operating costs for the podcast – sponsorship (and help with audio editing) would be great. When you participate in SOMB gear sales, you celebrate the Sisterhood, ensure that we can pay our hosting subscription for the Waypoints Podcast, and provide young women the opportunities to see what the Naval Academy and Naval Service have to offer.

Submit content!!!! I cannot emphasize this enough. We need your voices; your memories of the past and ideas for the future; your leadership successes and failures; your guidance for transitioning to a post-military life and your thoughts on how to make the Naval Service a long, fulfilling career. Your contribution of pictures and stories – great or small – are the heart of this endeavor. So many of you are doing amazing things – we are looking at you who think you are not that big of a deal as much as we are staring at those of you who already know. Your words can do all the things Beth Ann hopes for – represent, understand, heal, provide awareness and unity, motivate and strengthen. You have opinions, and we want to share them. While we were forged in the same crucible, we are a diverse group of women with different backgrounds and experiences. That diversity of thought is what challenges us and makes us stronger. In the coming weeks, I will be updating our call for articles and other content to reflect next year’s calendar. Take a look and plan ahead to see where your voice fits (it fits).

We want this amazing journey to continue, and we need your help to make this year even better. The New Year brings new challenges and new adventures. We look forward to celebrating the Class of 80’s 40th reunion and the 175th anniversary of the Naval Academy. We are seeking ways increase alumnae engagement and build relationships with alumnae from the other service academies. We hope you will join us on the journey, so that next year we can once again say, “Wow! It’s been a year.”

Speaking Up With the Superintendent

by Juliana Vida, ’94

I have the perfect job. What I love the most is the trust my boss and corporate leadership have in me to bring my unique voice, my personality, my style to every public engagement on the stage or with media. This is quite different from the rest of my adult life, including 24 years in the Navy and 3 at a major IT research and advisory firm.  I certainly had my share of being undervalued and silenced throughout my career as a graduate of the great class of 1994 and, therefore, one of the first women to join the wardroom of a combatant ship. As if being a CRUDES SWO weren’t hard enough, I transferred to Naval Aviation after my second DIVO tour and took heavier doses of the same.  On one deployment I was the only female pilot on the entire ship, an LHA with about 200 pilots, mostly Marines. On another deployment, on an aircraft carrier, I was the only female department head in any of Carrier Air Wing Eleven’s eight squadrons and the senior female in the airwing since there were no female COs or XOs.

Silenced? Undervalued? Excluded? You bet.

Back to the perfect job.  When I moderate a panel, my go-to icebreaker question for the panelists is “what’s your walk-up-on-stage song?”  I recently decided on my own song, which I came across quite by accident watching Aladdin on a recent flight. In the movie, Jasmine is standing her ground against the evil protagonists, Jafar and his henchmen, asserting her place as the princess and rightful heir to the throne of Agrabah.  This song made me sit up straighter and raise my fist in a “you go, girl” kind of way.

Truncated lyrics to “Speechless” sung by Naomi Scott in “Aladdin”

I won’t be silenced

You can’t keep me quiet

Won’t tremble when you try it

All I know is I won’t go speechless

‘Cause I’ll breathe

When they try to suffocate me

Don’t you underestimate me

‘Cause I know that I won’t go speechless

What does this have to do with my October 18, 2019 meeting with Vice Admiral Buck, USNA ’83 and current Superintendent, to discuss using storytelling to combat sexual harassment?

Everything.

It was confidence in myself and my voice that led me to respond publicly on LinkedIn to a post by the Capital Gazette in late July, 2019, reporting VADM Buck’s top priorities upon taking command: addressing sea level rise and reducing sexual assault.  After years of competing with mostly male counterparts on active duty and as a civil servant in the Pentagon, I’ve learned an important lesson:

Remaining silent solves nothing.  It is an intentional decision not to engage, not to offer diverse viewpoints, to accept the status quo (then grumble and complain about it offline).

As I read the headline and article about how this new leader intended to go after sexual assault (and by extension, I assumed, the culture at the root of the crime), my blood came to a slow simmer.

I admit, I judged him unfairly. I didn’t believe he intended to take on this persistent, toxic beast in a fresh, effective way (e.g. not another mandatory GMT series of lectures)

Without knowing him at all, I thought to myself “yeah right, I’m sure he’ll put this right up there with which recon missions are and aren’t allowed this year, whether plebes can scrunch down their PT socks, and other super important matters of USNA life and Midshipmen development.”  I mean, to be fair, how many leaders have we collectively seen come and go who are well intentioned about addressing hard problems but take little to no action or make progress?

“F it,” I thought.  “I’m sick of all the glad-handing and back-slapping of male leaders who don’t make things better for women or the Navy. I’m saying something.”

So I did.  Fortunately, I had the grace and wherewithal to post a thoughtful comment about how new methods of storytelling in many different forms could in fact be the inexpensive, achievable means for the Supe to tackle the sexual assault challenge.  I read and re-read my post about 20 times, and waited at least 2 hours, before hitting “Post.”  Then I let out a breath and thought, “well….here we go.”

To my great surprise, he responded right there on LinkedIn that he wanted to hear more of my ideas. He offered a phone number to call and coordinate a meeting.

Elated doesn’t begin to describe the emotions. Elated at his response, but honestly, more so at my own confidence in my ideas to post them and risk public ridicule.

Why do we tell ourselves our ideas aren’t worth publicly sharing? Why do we first assume the worst, instead of expecting the best?  I think a career’s worth of being silenced has something to do with it.

Fast forward to October 18, 2019, and my 30 minutes with Superintendent Buck.  It’s worth noting that the administration building where we met, Larson Hall, has only had that name since 2014 when it was renovated and dedicated to ADM Charles Larson, two-time USNA Superintendent who passed in the same year.  In fact, I was almost late for the meeting because I initially went to Bancroft Hall, having no idea where Larson was.  This was important; it showed that renaming of the Academy is actually do-able. Good to know.

To say that VADM Buck was warm and gracious is to do him a disservice.  I felt truly welcome in his space, where he gave me his full attention and interest. We sat in the living room area, not with him behind his desk and me facing him.  He was genuinely attentive and a good listener. I was impressed.  Several alumnae and classmate of his had told me prior to this meeting that he’s “a really good guy who gets it.”  They were right.

I am not an expert in sexual assault, have never been a command SAPR coordinator, or held any role beyond a division or department leader responsible for setting a positive example and holding Sailors and Officers accountable for treating each other with dignity and respect.  And I wasn’t always infallible in those roles.  My intent was to share with him ways he can, and should, make micro adjustments to the everyday USNA culture and environment that will change the way stories are told about the women and men who make the institution what it is – not just the men.

I pointed out that visitors to the Yard see buildings, streets, monuments, walkways, and other geographic points of interest named only – ONLY – for men. Some of us don’t even remember what these men did, but the message is clear that they were important. Who was Stribling, anyway? Or Blake, Maury, Hubbard?  Naming conventions are incredibly important on the Yard. They tell a powerful story of Naval history and heritage, which is foundational to our maritime legacy and dominance.  As of this writing, Hopper Hall is the only building named for a woman on any of the major Service Academy campuses. [In this context, it bears noting that she was not an Academy graduate].

I opined that he should use his position to influence visible structural changes around the Yard to weave in the contributions of women. He did not disagree.

This thread led to my mentioning almost being late to the meeting because I didn’t know about Larson Hall. “So it is possible to change the name of a building on the Yard, then?” I asked.  “I guess so,” he responded, “and though I don’t know all the rules yet about what I can and cannot do, I did find out I have the authority to change names of interior rooms and features inside existing buildings.”  He didn’t promise or commit anything further, but I saw his wheels turning.

We then pivoted to the topic of the small percentage of truly troubled and dangerous young people who make it through the admissions process and pose a real threat to others. He shared that one current, unnamed male Midshipman is undergoing legal processing for repeated physical abuse of others. We agreed there is a very small percentage of “bad people” in any population, including USNA, and shifted to discussing the Academy’s mission: to develop Midshipmen. As the population becomes more diverse with each class, assumptions of candidates’ value sets and upbringing are less and less appropriate. He agreed that “development” into people of character and high morals is the responsibility of the Academy. This development includes the intentional indoctrination of all Midshipmen that women and minorities are as valuable as white men and have contributed significantly to Naval history and maritime dominance. Not to mention, all deserve the respect of their shipmates.

He told me that when he took over this summer, a small group of ’79 grads told him they are “damn proud to be the last class with no women.” He told me that made him sick; that he considers them bad people who we just “have to wait out.”  I respectfully disagreed. Though I understand and appreciate their value as alumni, and their likely financial contributions and influence, it’s not enough to wait them out. They have sons, nephews, friends, and others to whom they spread their acrimony, and it’s not good enough to just let that go. I suggested he take a harder stand next time.

I shared other ideas for creative storytelling:  hang official portraits of notable female alumnae in prominent places – for example, ADM Michelle Howard or CAPT Wendy Lawrence; require midshipmen to yell “Go Navy, Ma’am!” as a general rule as opposed to a special circumstance where an upperclass happens to be a woman; setting a goal of 50% diverse speakers at Forrestal lectures and other high-visibility Yard events; incorporating the stories of modern day alumnae who show leadership in the Fleet and government, such as CAPT Maggie (Vasak) Wilson ‘96, RDML Heidi Berg ‘91, BGen Bobbi Shea ’91, CAPT Andria Slough ’98, the Honorable Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ) ’94, and the inimitable LTG Lori Reynolds ‘86. In fact, why not create a professional military course around the contributions of women?  He listened to my ideas with interest; his SAPR officer dutifully took notes as well.

My one regret is not asking for a follow-up or status check 3-6 months down the line. There are a million things I wanted to discuss but either forgot about or we ran out of time. I fully intend to ask for another meeting and ask how he feels he’s progressing on this top priority. In the meantime, I will continue, and I encourage all my sisters from Mother B, to use our voices to make the points and ask the questions that need to be spoken. Don’t be a tacit bystander. Take a stand; take a risk.   I support you all 100% in this endeavor. Thank you for doing the same for me.

Juliana Vida’s perfect job is as Chief Technical Advisor for Splunk, the world’s first Data-to-Everything platform. It’s perfect because “it offers flexibility to travel and work essentially from wherever I want; learning daily from the smartest people in high technology; honing my knowledge and expertise around things like cloud computing, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), 5G, and more; public speaking in a wide range of venues on numerous topics; and a great compensation package. It’s a Silicon Valley software company, after all.”

 

 

The Battle of Bancroft Hall

by Katherine Carradini, USNA ’84

Veterans Day has caused me distress for quite some time. As a 2 for 0, my standing with the Naval Academy has always been clear: if you raised your hand on I-Day, you’re alumni. Period. But Veteran? Could I count myself with those who went on to graduate, to serve on ships, in planes, and yes, even commanding those LMDs? My angst was always particularly acute during public patriotic ceremonies, where they ask you to stand when the anthem of your service is played.

To stand? Or not stand? Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t. If I was with my kids, I stood, because I knew they wanted me to – they would look for me, even up from their high school graduation floor, scanning the stands to find me. They were proud of me…why wasn’t I?

It took a weekend visit with my Academy women classmates to resolve the issue in my mind. I had previously avoided these events, feeling that I didn’t quite belong. It took the sharing of stories, of the past and of the present, for me to understand.

I am a Veteran. I fought the Battle of Bancroft Hall.

Being part of the earliest classes at USNA was challenging in ways that I don’t think any of us ever expected. The harassment and humiliation were real. I got away pretty easily. Harassment came in the form of fending off amorous upperclassmen; a disemboweled mouse left on my desk, a class- and company-mate who tailed me and bilged me to our upperclassmen; and one particularly humiliating moment involving the entire dining hall, one incredibly beautiful, bouncy-blond-haired candidate and one sweaty, crop-haired, unmade-up plebe. One woman the midshipmen stood and applauded in appreciation as she exited the wardroom; the other they applauded as well, but clearly in derision.

I’ll leave you to guess which one I was.

And still, I got off easy. Other classmates were assaulted and abused. You know the stories. But still, we forged ahead. Today, we all agree that none of us thought of ourselves as Trailblazers, but that we were. Just being there, just persisting, helped pave the way for thousands of women who came after us. I’m told that there are women midshipmen there today who have no idea what we went through; so much is it not like that now. I haven’t decided if that’s a good thing, or not.

I have decided one thing. I served my country. I helped open the Naval Academy to legions of women who would become Captains and pilots and astronauts. I fought the Battle of Bancroft Hall.

In celebration of my conclusion, I dug out my DD214, took it to my local Tag Agent, and asked for the Veteran Stamp – proudly, and without hesitation.

Happy Veterans Day – to all of us.

 

 

Representation Matters

by Kate McCreery Glynn, ’98

Meg Ryan as Captain Walden, Courage Under Fire, 1996, 20th Century Fox

“It’s just tension asshole. It doesn’t mean shit!”  1996, it was my youngster-year.  Captain Karen Walden’s Blackhawk crashed under enemy fire. She survived, enemy soldiers were closing in, and a crewman was ridiculing her tears.   Remember her?

Probably not. Courage under Fire wasn’t a great movie, and Meg Ryan wasn’t the most convincing as a Blackhawk pilot. But dammit I loved her.  Captain Walden was imperfect. She cried. She was sweaty and dusty and scared. She wasn’t beautifully coifed, ready to be swept off her high-heeled (in a hangar, really?) feet by a macho Tomcat pilot like Charlie Blackwood.    She wasn’t a beyond anything I could ever hope to be Olympian who shaved her head, literally removing the most outward symbol of her femininity, to make it through BUDS like GI Jane.  She wasn’t capable, whip-tongued, but only valuable in so far as she was the foil to men’s shenanigans like Hot Lips Houlihan.

Kelly McGillis as Charlie Blackwood,Top Gun ,1986, Paramount

Of course, Captain Walden was also dead, and the bulk of the movie involves Denzel Washington investigating whether she was worthy of a Congressional Medal of Honor and handsomely brooding over his own demons.  So in the end, even Captain Walden’s story is told in terms of what she means to a male protagonist.  Even this movie, about a female warrior, fails the Bechtel test[1] with a splat.

And yet.  “It’s just tension asshole. It doesn’t mean shit!”  Those words still speak to me.  Who among us haven’t felt the sting of tears, and the gut churning panic stifle them?  It’s just tension assholes!

I used to be embarrassed at how much it meant to me to see myself reflected on the silver screen.  We are supposed to be above all that drivel, and in no way needy of external confirmation of our worth, right?

Naruto, Madman Entertainment, 2007

And then, I had a son.  And then, I had a daughter.  And I saw my son pick his first heroes (Spiderman! Naruto! Sheldon!), and bask in the glow of their awesomeness.  Their exploits were his, their adventures his own.  Spiderman taught him that with great power comes great responsibility; Naruto to fight, literally, your inner demons; Sheldon to embrace his nerdiness.  And I saw my daughter look for her heroes.  Am I Mary Jane?  Does she shoot webs?  All the girls in the Naruto have really big boobies. Penny is funny and pretty, but why isn’t she a scientists like Sheldon and Lenard?

And then, Wonder Woman.  Yes, Gal Gadot’s Diana is beautiful, but damn she is strong, and that movie is unapologetically about HER.   Chris Pine is cast as the proverbial damsel, rescued, awed by Wonder Woman’s might, and basically a prop to advance the plot.  Diana was raised by women, trained by women: no man was responsible for her abilities.    My daughter’s face glowed.  I glowed.  We glowed.

Caley Cuoco as Penny, Big Bang Theory, CBS, 2007-2019

It’s been said before, but it’s worth repeating:  representation matters.   In that fluffy superhero movie about a demigoddess with a lasso of truth, my daughter found a hero to call her own.    In a world where women are still so often defined by how they relate to men (anyone else cringe at “don’t be mean to her she’s someone’s wife/sister/mother” trope?  She’s human isn’t enough?), proof that a woman’s story is worth telling.

When I was at USNA in the mid-nineties, there were a handful of female company officers, instructors, and stripers[2], so it’s not as if there were zero examples of female leadership in my life.  What I most keenly remember though, is how easily I followed my classmates into the habit of denigrating those women.  Affirmative action—that’s how she got her job.  A woman’s high-pitched voice calling cadences just sounds wrong.   Did you hear about LT ___?  I hear her husband left her and now she sleeps in her office.

Wonder Woman, Warner Brothers Pictures, 2017

Men in positions of authority was the firmly embedded norm, and anything that diverged from that was automatically weird, suspect, lesser than. I wish I could tell you that I was ashamed for not pushing back against jabs like these.  I didn’t.  They felt normal.  Joining in was a way to earn my membership in the brotherhood of disgruntled mids.

Of course now, with the benefit of 20 years of hindsight, I recognize how harmful that normal was.  It took a long time for me to excise the gremlin in my head that would whisper, “Do you deserve it or are they just being PC?” when I achieved academic or professional success.  I know now that with every snide remark about a strong female leader’s sexuality (Look at her what a dyke!), or failure to point out that her anger was righteous, not hormonal (what is she PMSing or something?)  I was doing my part to implant that voice in other women’s brains.  Now I feel great shame, and great fear that my daughter will not be spared those same whispers.

What the hell does this have to do with Wonder Woman and Captain Walden?  We are so very used to male heroes.  The damsel, perhaps feisty and intelligent, but ultimately in need of rescue, is standard issue.  Female characters defined only in terms of their relationship to male leads, or conveniently victimized to advance the plot (think the murdered girlfriend a hero must avenge) are common.  Male heroism, leadership, bonding, is idealized, normalized, lifted up in glory, in books, TV, movies, video games.  So, male leadership is normal; it’s what we expect.  When a woman fails to follow her normally assigned role on the other hand–and something as simple as failing to smile enough can land you in this category–it is unfamiliar.  We do not like unfamiliar. It is off-putting, disquieting, tempting to point out the weirdness of the situation (I cannot with a woman raising her voice. So shrill!).   As Caroline Criado Perez points out in Invisible Women , “When Thor was reinvented as a woman by Marvel Comics, fans revolted… although no one uttered a peep when Thor was replaced by a frog.”[3]

Little girls and little boys need heroines.  Unapologetic bad-asses like Diana, and complex imperfect ones like Captain Walden.  Maybe then, when they see women in leadership positions, it won’t seem odd.  Maybe they will know, instinctively, that the timber of a drill instructors voice does not reflect to her competence.  Maybe they will understand that tears are just tension asshole, it doesn’t mean shit.[4]

[1]  The Bechtel Test is a measure of the representation of women in fiction. To pass the Bechtel Test, a work must feature at least two named female characters talking to each other about something other than a man.

[2] A “striper” is a midshipmen in a leadership position, company commander, battalion commander etc.

[3] Caroline Criado Perez, Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, (New York, NY, Abrams Press, 2019), 14.

[4]  Of course, representation matters to everyone, not just women.  In good news on that front, Mattel recently announced a line of gender non-binary dolls.  Lashana Lynch who is next line to portray James Bond is female AND black.  The comments under articles describing those happy developments, on the other hand, are enough to make you disconnect your Wifi.  We have a long way to go.

 

Be There (Part II)

by Shannon Martin McClain ’98

Being there. I have often put the word out to others or “been there” for my classmates, peers and sailors.  And while so many people have been there for me throughout my life – family, professors, leaders, and friends, it is always difficult to admit to myself – let alone others – that I need help and support. I dislike pity parties and hate not being able to solve problems on my own. However, I have always felt a strong obligation to be open and honest with those who depend on me. As one of the team at Sisterhood of Mother B, I found myself at a crossroads last May. I had received difficult news in March, and I knew I would need to share it with the Sisterhood HQ – I was going to have problems fulfilling my end of the bargain as Chief Editor.

Unsure of how to even talk about my troubles, I sent an email to the other ladies of the Sisterhood of Mother B:

“So, I have been reminded multiple times this weekend that I might love to talk, but I am a terrible communicator.  Doesn’t matter whether it is great news, good news, or really devastating news. . .

“The bad news.  So Carlton and I are pregnant (well, I am) and due in September.  That should be awesome news, but unfortunately, I’m the number 1 in 1 in 26. 1 in 26 pregnancies at the maternal age of 44 have a chromosomal defect (that’s less than 4%).  And I won the lottery of the worst kind that might make it to term (Trisomy 13). The good news is that I’m healthy.  The bad news is that there is a high probability she won’t make it to term; if she does, she has a high probability of dying during birth; and if she lives through that, her life is more likely to be measured in minutes, hours, or days than months or years. We chose to continue, because we really just want to meet her. . .”

“The day I found out the results of the first test, a friend’s father passed away.  She said, we miss him, but we are choosing joy, as he would have wanted.  Carlton and I are choosing joy. Joy that we might get to meet her and joy for whatever time we have with her.  So, if I seem a little distracted or not as responsive as I might be this week or as time goes on, you might know why.”

As you would expect, these brilliant, and wonderful women rallied around me. In separate emails, letters and through group texts, they lifted me up and gave me an outlet to share the normal things you share when you are pregnant.  They bought into Carlton and I’s philosophy of taking the joy we have in the moment. They also picked up the slack on articles and planning for the Sisterhood of Mother B Blog. They were there for me.

Our daughter, Yara Ani, was born 1 August and passed away on 15 August.  She beat the odds and gave us more than hours and days. She gave us two full weeks of love and memories.  My Sisterhood was there for me during that time, as well – in addition to the ladies of Sisterhood, with the birth of our little girl, I shared our news with our wider world – to celebrate our amazing girl, but also because we needed help.

The morning after Yara’s birth, a friend surprised me at the hospital with clothes and a blanket – a blessing since we had nothing. Yara was impatient to join us and arrived seven weeks early. The wider Sisterhood came to our rescue with a carseat to transport Yara home from the hospital, homemade meals (healthier than I can generally make), restaurant gift cards, and grocery deliveries. One fellow officer taught me about Door Dash and another about Uber Eats (I had never used either). Friends, former shipmates, classmates, and complete strangers reached out to lift us up in word and in prayer. All of these things enabled my family to focus our limited time on our Yara.

After Yara passed, our Sisterhood continued their support.  At Yara’s Memorial, I was shocked to walk into the room and see the Sisterhood of Mother B (only Jeannette was absent) sitting in the pews. Michele had mentioned that she would be there, but it helped so much to see the others there as well.  It bolstered my courage as we celebrated Yara’s life and mourned her death.

After the service, we spent hours reminiscing and sharing stories on my front porch – and we used modern technology to FaceTime with Jeannette. Those ladies helped me concentrate on my joy and helped me to laugh – something I very much needed on that day.  And these women and the wider Sisterhood continue to offer opportunities to find joy and purpose.  They inspire me to the work at hand. They always seem to know when I need a little bit more – a note in the mail, an email, or just a text.

I would not have had any of that support if I had not shared my vulnerability.  I struggled to share it with most of my world, but I am so glad that I felt the need to share it with these women with whom I share the Sisterhood of Mother B. They were and are there for me. Just as we hope to be there for you.

If you need someone, I encourage you to reach out to your circle of friends and family.  If you are like me and hesitate to burden those closest to you, I encourage you to find an outlet.  One tool you can use is the  #objectivezero app. This application connects veterans with support in their local area or around the country, and you can filter by location, school and class year among other options. The goal of Objective Zero might be suicide prevention, but you don’t have to hit rock bottom to reach out for help. #USNABeThere.