Female soldier changed by deployment
By Cari Hachmann/ The Portland Observer
As a helicopter mechanic for the U. S. Marine Corps, veteran of war Marissa Rivera, 31, returned home after her third deployment to Afghanistan and Iraq in 2008.
Rivera was just 22-years-old and working at Auto Zone when she felt a calling to enlist in the military after terrorists crashed American passenger jets into New York City’s twin towers, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and into a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001.
Fearing the unknown and wishing loved ones goodbye, she deployed for her first time overseas in late 2004 to an air station in a cold mountainous region of Afghanistan. During her six to eight month stay, she survived three separate bombing attacks by Taliban insurgents.
After returning home to San Diego’s marine base at Miramar, Rivera deployed again in 2006, only this time with the Navy, on board the U.S.S. Peleieu. She was one of two female helicopter mechanics confined to a cramped air shop where the male to female ratio was near 100 to 1.
There, Rivera learned to suck it up as one of the guys. “I had to work 10 times harder and 10 times faster,” she said. “It was pretty evident– they didn’t want me there.”
Following a brief docking at a U.S. base in Kuwait, Rivera returned to the southern California shore, where she would leave again in 2007 for her final deployment to an air station in Iraq. By this time, the young woman was what soldiers call “salty”—she knew what she was getting into. Yet, the seasoned marine still found few comforts in the sand-stormed, 140 degree Fahrenheit Iraqi dessert.
Rivera says she didn’t realize how the war had changed her until after she got out and even then, it was a slow process of coming to terms. It took her four years to realize she had symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The stigma of PTSD in the military comes from not wanting to be considered weak or crazy by fellow soldiers and commanders. The condition keeps a lot of veterans in the dark and they don’t seek the help they need, said Rivera.
“You’ve been re-programmed by the military to be a certain way,” she said. “How do you undo that?”
After marrying a fellow soldier from her unit, moving to Portland and finishing a degree in psychology at Portland State University, Rivera was working at Portland’s Veterans Affairs Medical Center, assisting counselors with other veterans, when she began noticing her own PTSD symptoms.
Ailments such as flat effect, hidden emotions, anger flair-ups, impatience, hyper-vigilance, isolationist tendencies — these were conditions where, “I saw myself in other veterans,” said Rivera.
As a female in a no-excuse, male-dominated warzone, Rivera grew a thick skin.
“You can’t have weakness in the military,” she said. Every day she had to prove to others that she could fix helicopters flown by fellow soldiers and handle herself in life or death situations. It never got easier, she said.
Once home, she suffered the effects. “It’s not something I asked for. It’s not my fault. It’s something that happened,” she said. “How do you separate from being a weapon to being someone who’s breaking down?”
Post-war, Rivera is very private and doesn’t like to show emotion. She also gets emotional about things that would have never bothered her before.
Only recently has she begun to recognize her symptoms and triggers, and to reach out for help, “I’m trying to break it down and understand it. I was oblivious.”
Vietnam veterans have dealt with PTSD for 40 years without knowing, she said. “They open the door for everybody, for us.”
Rivera says she knows there are a lot of vets still stuck in denial, and the number of suicides from active and retired military has taken a heavy toll. She hopes to see the stigma of PTSD abolished.
Rivera is happy with the quality of care Portland’s Veterans Affairs has provided, but says the VA is “overwhelmed.” Some services are not up to date. From the war, Rivera suffers severe back pain and migraines.
Not wanting to take the pain killers the VA offers, Rivera paid out of pocket for holistic treatments like acupuncture, chiropractic care and massage therapy.
She was referred to the Returning Veterans Project, a southeast Portland non-profit started in 2005 by social worker Carol Levine, which offers free and confidential mental health and somatic services to veterans and families of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans.
“Only about 40 percent of all vets go to the VA (Veterans Affairs), 60 percent do not,” says Belle Landau, executive director of the Returning Veterans Project, “We help to fill that gap.”
While returning soldiers may wait up to 12 months to receive services from the VA, the returning vets group has 142 volunteer care providers throughout Oregon that are ready to help current war vets and family members get healthy without cost.
Thanks to the group, Rivera is closer towards being pain-free. “To finally have one day of relief… I can’t even describe the feeling,” she said. “It makes me very happy.”
While surrounded by male marines in the military, Rivera said she let go of her bonds with women. “I lost touch with women and my femininity,” she said.
When she and her husband, who also suffers from PTSD, but is not diagnosed, moved to Portland, the couple was looking to start life fresh and find new hobbies.
He found fishing. She found an all-women’s fitness facility that offers dancing. The activity has helped her come out of her bubble and re-integrate into society.
“Dancing is my therapy,” she said. “Women helped me there. I love those women.”
Currently unemployed, Rivera is waiting to be hired back by the VA Medical Center. Working there has inspired her to go back to school and become a counselor.
“Working with veterans, that’s my passion,” she said.
Rivera says she loved her time in the military. “I don’t regret it,” she said. “It was definitely a life-altering experience. There were hard times. It’s not easy for females.” But she was able to grow from her experience.
Though her view on war has changed, calling it “a horrible thing that does horrible things to people,” Rivera has made many long-lasting friendships. She says her military brothers and sisters are closer than blood kin.
She believes it’s time for them to come home. “I think we need to get out of there, enough have died.”
And when they come home, Rivera says we should welcome them back.
“People should take a look at themselves and veterans, and appreciate what they’ve done,” said Rivera, “Because they will never fully understand the sacrifices that are made by vets.”
Thank veterans for their services, she said, “We need support from the community.”