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Fighting Erasure

Two months after September 11, 2001, I arrived at Lackland Air Force Base for Basic Training. Having grown up in a small family, the experience of dorm living was overwhelming. For six weeks, I lived in open barracks with 59 other women. Bunkmates became best friends; basic training forges connections that can last a lifetime. Living so far from home was easier with my new family around me. Dreams of a long career screeched to a halt when I became disabled. During my discharge, I was assured that my military family would be there for the transition. A weeklong separation process was meant to ease my re-entry to civilian life. Clutching notebooks full of papers and vague instructions, I returned to my parents’ home.

Over time, my identity as an Airman slowly diminished. Trauma sustained on active duty left scars that aren’t always visible. The physical healing took nearly a year and I struggled with self-loathing at my inability to “tough it out”. Attending veterans events as a 20-year-old woman was a difficult experience. Each time I was asked to defend my presence and eventually, I gave up. Being erased was easier than forcing my way into a space where I was not wanted. As the years ticked by, I thought about the Air Force less and lost touch with people I served with.

When my sons first learned that I served in the Air Force they were excited. They begged to see pictures until I dug out the box containing photos, ribbons, and other memorabilia acquired during service. On our way to attend a parade for Memorial Day, I shared memories of friends killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. We set up our chairs along the parade route and impatiently waited to catch a glimpse of the parade marshall. A local veterans group was passing out American flags to veterans. As the volunteer grew closer I could hear her asking people “Are you a veteran?” If they said yes, she would hand them a flag and thank them for their service. As she approached me, I prepared myself for the inevitable conversation that yes, I really am a veteran. Instead, she looked me in the eye, walked right past me, and asked the man to my right if he was a veteran. I was confused. Why didn’t she even ask me? My sons stood tall and shouted, “My mom’s a veteran! She needs a flag!” The volunteer hesitated, clearly confused. Giving me a second look, she looked to the man for guidance. Their suspicion of my service, based solely on my gender and age, was written across their faces. She eventually gave me a flag but it felt like I was doing something wrong. My kids were angry and asked why she didn’t believe me. I was reminded of why I rarely mention my service.

Growing up in a military family, I always understood the importance of civic engagement. I am proud of my service in the Air Force and my contributions during OEF/OIF. Veteran organizations felt unwelcoming so I found other ways to serve my community such as food pantries, homeless shelters, and mentorship programs. I even earned a Master’s in Teaching so I could be the teacher my students deserve. (As an aside — no one has ever questioned my teacher status) Earlier this week, a Billerica resident began demanding that I send her my DD214. She refuses to believe that someone like me — a young woman and mother of two — could honorably serve our country as an Intelligence Analyst in the United States Air Force. Since declaring my candidacy for State Representative, my life has never been so public; that’s expected. So I am using my platform to share my experiences with all my siblings in service who also face these issues. Too many people continue to face discrimination and it’s important to call it out. My name is Teresa English, a mom, veteran, teacher, and candidate for office — I will no longer be erased.

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