Military Mom: A Daughter’s Salute

“I began learning from an early age that gender can’t stop you from achieving anything you set your mind to. I have my mother to thank for that. She enlisted in the Army just before she became pregnant with me, and although no one knew it at the time, her military career would stretch on to last just over 26 years.”

As a child I would tell people that I had a parent in the military, and I was always met with surprise upon the realization that I was referring to my mother and not my father. My dad is a creative soul, a musician and a writer. To provide some explanation, my mom only enlisted in the military to qualify for a job in a world renowned Army research laboratory. When it came time to reenlist, she couldn’t ignore the stress that her travel was placing on her family. She was a mom, first and foremost, but she wasn’t willing to give up her military commitment completely.

She chose to end her active duty when I was five years old, and we moved out of military housing. She continued her career through the Army Reserves, working at home to spend more time with us. Her new commitment was one weekend per month, two weeks per year. Looking back, I continue to be awestruck by what she ultimately achieved in her military career. She retired as a Command Sergeant Major several years ago, the highest rank that a Non-Commissioned Officer in the Army can achieve.

As a child, I understood that my Mom was serving our country, and I always knew that was something to be proud of. Past that, it’s difficult to relate to what she experienced. Women make up only 10% of veterans, and being a woman in an environment completely dominated by men isn’t easy.  “I constantly felt as though I needed to prove myself [to the men],” she said. “Also, the women were supportive, but also very hard on each other. No one wanted to be viewed as a weak link because we knew that would reflect negatively on all of us.”

Over the years, I’ve realized that just because I can’t directly relate to what she experienced in her military career doesn’t mean that her decisions and achievements haven’t helped to shape who I’ve become as a female adult.

“One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from her is what it truly means to step out of your comfort zone. She cites completing drill school to become a Drill Sergeant as the most challenging training of her career, being told from the beginning that she lacked the right disposition for the job. I suspect that for some, this was a roundabout way of saying, ‘You’re a woman, and you don’t belong.'”

She graduated from a class of 78, 12 of which were female, and only 6 of who graduated. Although this was over 20 years ago, the ratio of male to female drill instructors is still staggering today. As recently as November of 2015, the Army revealed that there were 2,088 authorized drill positions for men, and only 524 authorized drill positions for women, across the Army’s four basic training sites.

I was in fifth grade at the time, and although there was no way I could have fully understood the achievement, I felt it. I understood the respect I saw in the eyes of people who learned what my mom did for a job. I knew she was one of the only women, and I knew that was special. She earned a strong camaraderie with the men in her unit, and they always treated her like an equal. We would go to their houses for barbeques and go skiing with their families. It was obvious that they valued her. Fostering a support system in your career is vital for success, and even if I didn’t know it at the time, I witnessed second-hand examples of this during my formative years because of the relationships that were important to her.

Something else that was easier for me to grasp was the fact that her choices were affecting more than just her. Her travel and deployment took a toll on our family, as it does for every military family. “What was clearly pointed out to me when I deployed was that the family was being dragged along for the ride and you had no say in it. You had to sit back and be witness to it, and experience the lack of my presence for a year,” she described. She deployed to Kuwait when I was in college, just days after the death of one of my younger brother’s closest friends, and a week before his high school graduation. It was difficult for us but we were proud of her, and that outweighed our negative experiences. My father showed his support by editing her unit’s family newsletter, and we traveled to see her when possible.

“As an adult I spend my time writing a lot about the still ongoing fight for women’s rights. Women will continue to fight for gender equality in the years to come, and I’m proud to tell anyone who will listen that my mother has played a pivotal role. She was a presence for other women in a hostile environment, and she helped to change the opinion of some men who otherwise were unfamiliar with female leadership in the Army. She trail blazed, and she did it with strength and grace. I have no doubt that growing up watching her career unfold has instilled in me a drive to facilitate change for women in any way that I can.”

Today I strive to keep the conversation going about the wrongs, about the changes we still need to make, and also to shed light on those who are doing so much good. The pride that I feel for my mom, Command Sergeant Major Karen Lee Speckman, and for all of our service members, female and male, is immeasurable. Today we honor the fallen as well as those who still fight.

“My mother’s choices, experiences, hardships, and achievements have taught me more about how I want to live than anything else I can call upon. If at the end of my life I’ve affected even a fraction of the change that she has, it will be my greatest achievement.”

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