Keynote remarks Women Are Veterans Too! November 8, 2007
by Elizabeth and Theresa O’Dorherty Heidi Kruckenberg, emcee:
I would like to introduce our keynote speakers now. We have two sisters who live in Acton. I will introduce them in the order they were born. (Laughter from audience.)
First I will introduce Theresa. She is a decorated Iraq War veteran and Elizabeth’s older sister. She is in her seventh year in the Army Reserves as a Black Hawk Crew Chief. She has served over two-and-a-half years of active duty including 11 months in Iraq beginning in February 2005, just five months after her sisters’ return home. During her tour in Iraq, she was one of the few women on either a Special Forces or Infantry base. She lived with daily mortar attacks and experienced firefights regularly. Since her honorable discharge from active duty with multiple decorations, she has been a college student. She has earned an associates and a bachelor’s degree and is currently working on an accelerated Master’s of Science nursing program at Regis College. I know that this time in the semester is extremely busy for college students and really appreciate Theresa and Elizabeth’s speaking today. I thought maybe they would have to skip class in order to attend, but they assured me they didn’t.
I would like to introduce Elizabeth O’Doherty, a disabled Iraq War veteran. She spent nine months deployed to the Middle East in 2003, and entered Iraq the day the war began. Elizabeth served under the 3rd Infantry Division of Fort Stewart, Georgia. Although her MOS in the Army was Brigade and Division level supply, she found herself on the front lines just like any other infantryman. She experienced many traumatic events during her time at war including bombings, ambushes, and firefights, along with the threat of an NBC (which stands for nuclear, biological or chemical) attack. Elizabeth received an honorable discharge from the Army in August 2004. She graduated from Boston College last December and, like her sister, is now enrolled full time in a Master’s of Science in Nursing at Regis College.
Please join me in welcoming these ambitious and courageous women! (Audience applause.)
Thanks. Good morning, thank you for inviting us to be here today. We are honored by the opportunity to share some of our experiences and views regarding our time in the service. We have so much to say in regards to sacrifices and gains, in our lives today, in our pasts, and in the future. But we can’t fit it into 15 minutes, but we’re gonna try.
My sister and I both joined the military in the spring of 2001, before September 11, and we didn’t expect that we’d be going anywhere special or tragic or with any danger. We didn’t foresee that in our future. But wearing the uniform, it is expected that you’re going to go somewhere.
I joined and I spent a year in Korea after my training, which was a lot of fun, I dunno if you have been there. And my sister was a reservist, so she got to come home and go to school after her training. Joining the military, we knew that we would be filling the boots, the combat boots, that were traditionally filled by men. We had ideas about what it would be like but the reality of Basic Training and combat and regular day to day shattered our sugarcoated ideals.
Women today are faced with so many challenges. There are stereotypes of what a woman should be, what choices she could make regarding her career, or family choices, lifestyle choices, relationships choices, should she or should she not have them. Women face these challenges every day, but as time goes on, we can grow stronger and we can move forward, and break the mold, as many of us have, or do things that are unexpected. My sister and I are not trailblazers, but we work hard to find a balance between our normal day to day lives and thinking outside the box.
Today’s celebration is about women “Women are Veteran’s Too” and we female veterans share a bond, not only in womanhood or sisterhood but in being veterans too. We all come from different walks of life, but it doesn’t keep us distant, it makes close to one another.
And I’m Theresa.
She is the older one. [Laughter from sisters and audience]
I always wanted to serve my country. Our aunt served during Vietnam and our grandmother served during WWII. This may not have been something in the forefront of my mind when I joined, but I am sure that it influenced my actions. People always ask me in school, all sorts of social situations, why did you join? And would you do it again? I joined because I wanted to protect the American way of life and I wanted to protect this country because I love this country. There is no question in my mind; I would do it all again.
When we were asked to speak at this event, we initially thought that preparing a speech would be a simple process. We thought, ‘I have a degree in English from Boston College and so does my sister. It should be easy to put down how in we feel in words’. We both spent a lot of time in quiet reflection alone, trying to figure out what our feelings truly were. And then we came together through a discussion and discovered that putting into words how we feel was far harder than we ever imagined. Most people do not get the chance to actually reflect on such a deep level: why we are who we are and how we actually got here. Finding the right words that expressed exactly what we thought certainly was challenging, yet extremely rewarding.
Life is about sacrifices and gains as a whole. We give things up every day in order to gain something else, like not having ice cream for dessert so you don’t have to work out as hard tomorrow (is one of my favorites), or waking up a few minutes earlier to beat the rush hour.
Some obvious sacrifices when joining the military are common in everyone’s life. You leave home to go to college just like you leave home to go to Basic Training or Boot Camp. In doing so, you become part of a new community and a new way of life. As a woman, you give up part of what society would define as feminine, to fit into the group.
You wear a uniform that definitely does NOT show off your curves. You are molded into an equal member of a team. Of course, you gain a paycheck, clothes on your back, and 3 hots and a cot and they take away the worry about having to provide these things for yourself. You give up the comforts of your old way of life, the comforts of home and the comforts of family in order to create a new family with your fellow soldiers. Instead of watching TV on Saturday morning or going to the beach, you low crawl through what seems like miles of sand and learn to shoot a rifle, which is now your best friend, with precision, and learn new terms like and ONE SHOT ONE KILL and HOOAH.
This is to prepare us for the real thing. This, you can imagine, isn’t all that girlie. You give up a piece of yourself, your individuality when they break you down to build you over again.
Your innocence is tainted, then destroyed when you hit the sand box in Iraq. Dealing with life or death situations 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You give up much needed rest in order to ensure the safety of your combat buddies in Iraq. You lose your fear and you set aside your innate nurturing abilities that you have as a woman, just to survive. You protect your comrades before you protect yourself, and you are thrust into fight or flight situations constantly, we chose to fight. The uniform that you wear identifies you. You’re simply another American soldier with a stone cold face, empty soul, like a machine, but weary, trying to understand if this is real or just a nightmare.
From these experiences, we gained many things. We became realists. We want the truth and we speak the truth. We don’t like things candy coated. We want to know actual reality. We say what we think and we own up to our mistakes. You can really only learn from them, right? We can recognize true good and evil. We can read people not only by their words, but by their body language, their eyes. Our eyes are wide open. We gained an understanding of people, but also life. We defined our beliefs and morals. We have great backbones for building an informed choice about our beliefs and moral in our future. We gained structure, discipline and responsibility.
I remember before I left for Iraq, I held a mother of one of my soldiers and she cried and cried and she said, “Please just bring my baby home, bring my baby home alive.” It was my job to bring him home. I did my duty and I brought him home and she was so happy. By keeping my team of soldier’s disciplined and vigilant kept us all alive. It kept us all from getting complacent in combat. I was not the nurturing woman that I was that day holding a boys mother. I was their leader, and I am a woman, a strong woman in charge of a bunch of these young boys who gained respect and honor from what we shared together, wearing the same uniform and carrying the same rifle.
Because we were thrust into a life and death situation, the people that we thought about were the people we cared most about. We wondered if we would ever actually see them again and we realized how important they truly are to us. We vowed we would treasure them if we ever saw them, but for our time in the army, we had a new family. This family may not be blood in the traditional sense, but family all the same.
We gained self-realization. Defining what we believe and what is really important and what we wanted our lives to be, if we ever came home. How we could help the world be really a better place. We gained more than what we could ever put down in words.
We gained a new life, an understanding of the true meaning of being alive, humility and pride at the same time. We gained a new quality of life that would not have existed without being a soldier and serving our country. We gained friendships and forged new relationships that will last a lifetime because we were all there together, a family of a different sort. We share a common bond with all veterans, because we have all been in the same world, different time and a different place, but the same.
We are not afraid to take chances and we are definitely not afraid to fail, because we know it’s no big deal unless you’re shooting at me. We only have one life to live and we want to make it a good one! We don’t sweat the small stuff. We suppress stress and pettiness because we know it really doesn’t matter. We don’t take for granted things that we did before, but one that treasures every moment we can. We feel as though we have a second chance and we are truly lucky for that.
My sister and I have always been friends, but only like sisters, until the war. Before we shared the bond of blood, but since my sister returned from Iraq in early 2005, we have been inseparable. Being 4 years older than me, my sister craved her freedom when she returned from combat. She wanted her independence, but left alone with her thoughts, she couldn’t handle the reality of such a calm, normal life. In her new home, alone, she slept in a recliner in her living room, because there were fewer windows than in her bedroom. I slept on the couch next to her because I knew what she was going through. I was the only person she reached out to because we have both been there. We know how it feels to be around other people and yet so alone, so now, almost three years after her return, and four years after mine, we are together all the time, in school, in work, in social situations, and we are better that way.
We gained a stronger bond than just really being sisters, and it makes us better. People refer to us as “The Sisters”, or the twins because they don’t know who’s who and they know that we always come as a team. If you see one of us, you see the other. Most people don’t even know our first names, but they can identify us. We have been lucky with our post-combat education at Boston College and at Regis College, where the professors understand and embrace our relationship. We have been blessed in our work, where our bosses enjoyed such a strong team with a ceaseless work ethic.
When we began a nurse practitioner program at Regis College this past fall, we explained to one staff member that we are one another’s support system and we preferred to stay that way. She told us to say no more.
On the surface, it seemed as though we would be speaking mainly about sacrifices that we made for our country. Interestingly enough, once we sat down and began some intense self-reflection, we both had an epiphany; the sacrifices we made were minimal compared to the gains. We don’t regret anything and we are who we are today because of our time in the service. I wouldn’t change a thing. We don’t define ourselves by our time in the army, but it defines truly who we are today.
Thank you again for the chance to speak to you today, and we hope that we can continue to build this tradition to celebrate women veterans. Thank you to the veterans and families here today. Thanks mom and daddy.