What is your birth year?
How old are you?
What branch of the United States Armed Forces did you serve in?
United States Navy.
What was your rank?
I went in as a seaman recruit, and I got out as an E-5, a second class.
Where did you serve?
I was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, but for the majority of my service, I was overseas on a ship.
Where were you born?
Tell me about your family.
My mother died when I was six, and I don’t know who my father is- I have a name, but I never met him- and so after my mom died, I was kind of bounced around to family members; my grandmother first, and then they determined she was too old, so then they sent me to live with my aunt and uncle- my biological uncle. They adopted me, but that wasn’t necessarily a happy [home]; it was probably better than what would’ve happened to me.
Did you grow up in Portland?
What schools did you attend?
I went to Marcus Whitman, Gregory Heights- for a time, when my aunt got religion, Our Lady of Sorrows- that was for a year, but I was so far behind the other students that started out in parochial school from kindergarten. I left Our Lady of Sorrows, back to Whitman, and I graduated and went to Benjamin Franklin. I moved to New Mexico.
Tell me about high school.
When I was in high school, Reagan was in office. I wasn’t really very political, but I loved the military, and I love ships, and I wanted to go into the Navy. But, I was overweight, so they wouldn’t let me go right out of high school. 82nd street- people drinking, stripping- East Port Plaza was the hangout, Clackamas Town Center was brand-new.
How did you start your military service?
I wasn’t in ROTC, but like I said, always loved the military, and the Navy. I didn’t want to be a Marine; the Navy and the ocean sounded way more exciting. I tried to enlist right out of high school, but like I said, I was overweight, so they wouldn’t take me. I moved to New Mexico, and I started a big take-and-bake pizza place there, like Pappa Murphy’s- it used to be called Pappa Aldo’s. I started a take-and-bake pizza place there called Tak’s. I did that for a little over a year with the money I had inherited from my mom’s death, her insurance, but I had a real bum of a boyfriend, and he was an alcoholic, and ended up being a chippy-chaser. I said, “To hell with you”, I lost 100 pounds; I joined the Navy from New Mexico.
What year did you enlist?
I enlisted in 1987.
Did you have any expectations about what your service would be like?
No, it was pretty much peacetime. I joined in 1987, and I had served for a little while, but then they did this witch-hunt for gays- that was before Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. I loved the Navy, [and] I’d worked so hard to be in the Navy- I didn’t want to get thrown out, so I lied, and a buddy of mine said, “Well, let’s get married!” He was quite a bit older than I was, so we got married, and that seemed to satisfy them for a bit. August of 1990 was when the Gulf War began, and I had just gotten to a brand new ship- it had just come out of pre-commissioning, and we went to San Diego. We were there, and I was at Universal Studios on a day of leave, and they came over the loud speakers that we had just announced that we were going to war. What was your reaction to that announcement? It was devastating. I was like, “Oh my God. What does that mean? What does this mean?” Of course, we got back to our ship, and we headed right over for the Med- the Mediterranean- and the Red Sea.
Do you remember your first days in service? What was it like?
I was 20, and I turned 21 in Bayonne, New Jersey. Here I was- I was this kid, and I had just gotten out of boot camp, out of A-school. I became a signalman, which I don’t think they have in the Navy any longer- but they do semaphore, and flashing lights. Right after I got out of A-school, of boot camp, they put me on a plane and sent me to New Jersey, from Orlando- I went to boot camp in Orlando. They sent me to Bayonne, New Jersey, but when I got there, it was pitch-black. They told me to report to this base; taxi cab dropped me off in this really dark base, and there was no one around, and I was in my dress skirt, high heels, my suitcase, everything. I walked into this building- nobody around to pick up the phone; I saw a number for the duty officer, and got in contact with him. He says, “You gotta walk down about a mile.” It’s pitch-black, I don’t know where I’m going- “Well, what about my bags?” He says, “Just stow them away there and you can get them in the morning.” So I tried my best to stow my gear under the stairway, and then I walked outside- I’m still in heels. From the time I came in to the time I walked out, it had snowed like a foot. It was crazy! So I go back in and I call this duty officer, and I said, “I’m in high heels, and I don’t know where I’m going, there’s a blizzard out there!” He goes, “Oh, alright,” so he got up and drove me to the base. I was 20; this was just after New Year’s, and my birthday is January 12th. I got there right after New Year’s; the room that they gave me to stay in was- you couldn’t turn the thermostat down. It was high; it was so hot in the room. It had a linoleum floor and a bed, so I opened the window and the snow was blowing in. I fell asleep on the linoleum floor with the snow coming in. It was the only way I could cool down.
What was your boot camp or training experience like?
Boot camp was difficult; when I was younger, I had been physically abused- and other types of abuses- but in particular, I got kicked on the backside, which broke my tailbone. Not wanting to get a medical discharge, I just powered through- you try and do the sit-ups on one side. I also had a bum knee- but I got through it. It was tough, but it was good comradery. But, the Navy lied to me; they said if I performed this job, which was laundry duty, the whole time that I was there, that at the end of boot camp, I would get a promotion from seaman recruit to seaman. It didn’t happen.
Do you recall your trainers or instructors?
There was something that they call hell week; people go out, and they work in the kitchens, and they go and do other things on the base to provide a service. Since I was laundry detail, I was still continuing to do the laundry, but I was still expected to come in and help mop the floors. You forget yourself; every time a commanding officer comes into the room, you’re supposed to stop, come to attention, and salute. I was really busy with washing that floor, and mopping- I was carrying mop buckets- and I walk in the door, I was headed for a group of people I was working with- and the company commander came in. “Hello, seaman recruit.” I just kept going, I just kept walking with the buckets- “Seaman recruit, stop and give me twenty!” It sounds cliché, but it’s true- stop and give me twenty. I just have to chuckle about that, because it was funny.
Where exactly did you go during the war?
From Bayonne, New Jersey, I had to fly to Mallorca to meet the ship- Spain. I love that place, it’s beautiful. I’ve always wanted to go back. When I retire, I want to be in Portugal. I met the ship in Mallorca- I’ve been to so many places, and I’m so grateful, because I never would’ve been able to do that. The type of ship I was on- they are called USNS ships, verses a USS ship. A USS ship is a state ship, and a USNS is a United States Naval ship. The auxiliary oiler I was on- the first one was called the USNS Mississinewa 144. That ship, I had a roommate, and then there was a bathroom that adjoined with another room, so I had really excellent duty on board the ship. I wasn’t cramped back. The USNS ship has merchant seamen aboard, so there were really only 20 military personnel aboard, and the rest were merchant seamen. I had to go through special questions to see whether or not I could serve aboard with people; it was a special kind of testing.
What was the weather like?
The weather was amazing; there was one time we were crossing the Suez Canal, and it was so hot we actually got an egg and fried it on the deck. We cracked it open and it fried right there.
Do you recall arriving to your assigned locations? What did you expect?
I’m pretty strong, I’ve always been kind of independent, but I do remember feeling a little bit of depression. I got to the ship; I was given the top bunk, and above me, like maybe two feet from my face, were all these painted wires and cables. I was like, “Wow, what am I doing?” But, the people aboard made it great.
What was your job or assignment there? Did it change over time?
I was a signalman; we would raise the flags, and we would talk to other ships with the flashing lights, Morse code, semaphore using our hands. We were an oiler; we supplied DFM, JP5- DFM is gas for ships, and JP5 for airplanes. Because we would have to go to port more frequently, to refuel, we would also pick up mail. We would deliver mail, and things like that.
Tell me about any specific memories or experiences that stand out.
There was once when we were in Egypt; we had to anchor outside of Cairo, and I got maybe three or four days off, and we went and did tourist things. A group of us went to the pyramids, and they have camels, and camel herders. We saw people riding camels, and we asked, “How much is it to ride the camel?” And he said, “It’s nothing, it costs nothing to ride the camel.” I said, “Oh, really, I want to ride the camel!” So my friend and I stood there, and he brings the camel down, and we jumped on the back, and he took us to ride around the pyramids. When we got back to the place, I was expecting him to put the camel down, because the camel was so tall that we couldn’t do anything. I said, “Well, are you going to let us down?” And he says, “Twenty dollars!” I said, “You said it was free to ride the camel!” He says, “Well, it’s free to ride the camel, but twenty dollars to get down.” So, I gave him ten bucks. Then, there was this kid- I’ll never forget him- and he says, “You, beautiful American woman, I want to kiss you! I want to kiss you inside!” I don’t know what that meant, but there were so many novelties.
What were the most trying and difficult moments of service?
One of the most difficult things was pretending I wasn’t gay; hiding that was a constant thing. One of the things that was most disturbing, that I didn’t know, [was that] back then, garbage, you just [threw] it overboard. That was really troubling to me. Shortly before I got out of the Navy they stopped that practice, and they started holding the garbage on board. I was thankful for that; that was really difficult. Being away from family, and friends, feeling like you’re stuck way out here and life is going on for everybody else, and you’re just stuck doing this monotonous job. I think that was difficult.
What were the best memories of service?
I was always proud, to be in the Navy. Looking back, it was always one of the best choices I ever made, because at that time in my life I didn’t have any direction as to what I wanted to do. It gave me structure, and I think the whole experience, overall, was really fulfilling to me. I really wanted to serve, and be proud to serve my country, and I was there wanting to do whatever it took for that.
Were you awarded any medals or citations? If so, what for?
I got the four-year service award, and the Southeast Asia award for Desert Storm.
Desert Storm also included land and air participation from the US. Were you kept updated on these operations?
We didn’t get a lot of updates. It seemed like once a month, they would fly in some new movies, and maybe some Navy-news. We weren’t really kept abreast; sometimes there was a little printout you could read, but we didn’t really get a lot of news.
Did you feel discriminated against because of your sexuality?
That was just the way of life; growing up, it wasn’t trendy to be gay. Back then, I called it gay; now, they refer to men as gay, and women as lesbian. It was an automatic assumed that I would be discriminated against for it, but no one really knew that I was gay. Other than the time I slept with this girl off the ship- we’d been flirtsy on the ship- but then she got back, and I guess she told a bunch of people. Then, they started asking questions. Do you remember the questioning process? What was it like? Very intimidating. Very scary, thinking that everything you’ve worked for is going to be thrown away just because. On that same ship, I was [assaulted]. A group of us, we went out to port, and they call the red light district ‘the gut’, the place they tell you not to go to, so of course it’s the first place people head to. It was customary for someone in the group to get a hotel room, or a couple of hotel rooms, if we had shore leave for the night. You’d party, and then everybody would just crash in the hotel room. We did that, and then I woke up in the midst of somebody who I thought was a really good friend had my clothes completely off, and he was right in the process of it. I didn’t tell anybody, because it was embarrassing. When I was in school, I had a commanding officer- I was the only female in my class, and he pressured me. Then, there was this other thing, where I went out with a group of friends- this was in boot camp- we went out with some friends, and we’d just finished boot camp and the end of A-school, and we were getting ready to go home for Christmas, and we all went out to have drinks. [I] came back, because I was in a female barracks, and I’d had a lot to drink, but I wasn’t drunk. The next thing I know- I’d just gotten into bed and taken off all my clothes- a lot of people had already cleared out for their vacation holiday, and there was this guy, who I’d seen in the bar, who worked in the barracks- he snuck up to my room. I got caught with him in my room; I never invited him there, it was in the middle of me trying to figure out what the hell [he] was doing up there, so I got a captain’s mast over that. Since I was still a seaman recruit, they couldn’t take a stripe away, but they fined me I think $300. That was not my fault, but how could you prove it? Especially the generation of my parents and my grandparents, you just don’t talk about it. Did you feel discriminated against because of your gender? [My ship] was mostly male; there were a few females, but no, with the job that I had within the Navy, it was pretty gender-neutral. I’ve always been a really hard worker, so I always found praise, or people valued me for my work ethic. That’s how I think I survived.
What were your friends and family’s reaction to your service?
Like I said, my mom died when I was young; I was emancipated when I was 16, so I was out living on my own. I was going to Benjamin Franklin High School, but I also had my own business at 16- I had a few elderly ladies that I took care of. I’d get up, feed them breakfast, wash their faces, put them in front of the TV, come home from school, feed them their lunch, give them their meds, go back to school, come back, feed them dinner; then, I’d go to my night job. When I graduated from boot camp, all my friends in boot camp had their parents, and their grandparents, come. I didn’t have anybody come, and that was really sad for me, cause it was one of the proudest moments for me, and I didn’t have anybody there to celebrate. Luckily, I had good friends, and they shared their families, so that helped me through it.
What was the food like?
I am lucky! We got to go down on these USNS ships, and you got to order off of a menu, because they had merchant seaman who were expecting a decent meal, so we got to have the same choices. The food was really good.
Did you feel stress or pressure about the war and its effects?
I don’t think it really sunk in until you are out of the situation; you’re just kind of going along, doing your daily tasks. It didn’t really sink in; you still felt safe. I still felt like nothing would happen to us. We knew we were servicing ships that were in and out of the Persian Gulf, and we would talk to some of the fellows on the ships. I didn’t recognize the danger that we were actually in. Do you remember what the people you talked to said? No. Just prior to my arrival at the ship I was on, they had a body recovery. There was a plane that had crashed, and so I remember them talking about how devastating that was, but I didn’t have to go through it.
Are there any people you met that you specifically remember? Have you kept in touch with any of them?
Yes, I [have]. I have kept in touch. One of my really good friends, Frank- he’s passed away now- he was a good friend, and he was a higher rank than I was. He passed away after he got out of the Navy with appendicitis. I wonder what a lot of those fellows are doing. There’s another fellow that I talk to; he lives in the Midwest, he’s married, and has kids.
On her marriage:
Unfortunately, he grew to love me. We got married because he understood my sexuality, he wanted to be my cover. He also a tinge of bisexuality, so I thought that was gonna work out fine. But, he wanted to continue to be married. I said, “Look, I can’t continue this.” I tried to make it work, because at that point I hadn’t told my family I was gay, so it was not only a good cover for my military life but my family life. He was quite a bit older, and I just wasn’t a good fit. It was supposed to be a temporary thing. There were some hard feelings, at that time. I still call him up; he was on a very limited income, now that he was older, and so I bought him his first computer. I haven’t talked to him since Trump was elected; [Trump] was from New Jersey. Back in the day, I knew of Trump, he knew of Trump, he was telling me about Trump- but my ex-husband, he came from New Jersey, and he was kind of Frank Sinatra Mafia type. He was a cross between Fred Flintstone and Jackie Gleeson. He liked that moxy of Donald Trump; back in the day, [Trump] was just considered a sleezebag car salesman, and I cannot believe he is our president today. [My ex-husband] told me, “Yeah, I voted for Trump!” “How could you? You don’t even know the consequences, the jeopardy, I feel that I’m in now!” President Trump has recently passed legislation regarding LGBTQ+ participation in the military. What do you think of these comments and laws? I think it’s sad, I think that people who want to have the opportunity to serve, if they’re able to serve, whether they are trans, or straight, I think if they are capable, they should be able to, if they want to serve their country. They have a right. It’s a right to be able to serve, and to protect your country.
Why, or when, did your service end?
I actually extended for the convenience of the military, because we were overseas, and it would’ve been a bit difficult to get me to port, to send me back to the United States. I was primarily, all four years, overseas. I just did my time. I remember thinking at the time that I was tired of pissing on command, meaning, “Give me a U-A right now.” Not having my own base, home life- just kind of missing that. You start thinking, “Well, what are my friends doing now?” I was gone for so long; it’s not like I did a six-month deployment, and then came back into the real world. We were gone.
How did you feel about the end of your service?
I was ready. I had gotten the G.I. bill; to get the G.I. bill, you have to pay $100 into it for a year, so I decided to start using it to go to college. I didn’t end up using it until many years later, and I didn’t realize that the benefit ran out at a certain time. I thought the clock started ticking when you started going to school, but I didn’t realize that there was a limit. I only got two years with that. Yeah, I just wanted to get back into life, because things kind of stand still.
Where did you relocate to?
I was stationed in Virginia, and I was still married; in the course of that time, we’d bought a house together, and so I stayed there in Virginia for some time and sold vacuums. I tried doing the telemarketing for a bit, and then I went back to what I knew. He was still a merchant seaman out on ships; I went back to what I knew, which was taking care of elderly people. I had three women who I would take care of, and that was my job, but that burned me out, and he was gone and I didn’t have any help. I was just ready to be done.
How did you come to Portland?
I fell in love with a straight woman in Virginia, and she was treating me like a yo-yo; “I love you”, “No, go away”, “I love you”. I said, “I’m done, I can’t do this anymore, I’m moving back home.” I had a sword collection; I probably had like ten different swords that I’d picked up from Spain, and Italy; I had this 1944 German war helmet with a bullet hole that I picked up on the Isle of Crete. I hawked it all for gas money to move back here. Moved back here, and then the city of Portland opened its arms and gave me an awesome job.
Did you have a family after you returned?
Just came back to Portland and tried to reunite with my family that was here; there were a few family members that I was close to, an aunt. She passed away like a year after I got back. I got right into work, and trying to get promoted where I was working.
What was your job or career after your service?
I got my foot in the door with the city working for the Parks Bureau, as a permanent part-time custodian for the Pittock Mansion. I cleaned the Pittock Mansion for a while, but I didn’t realize that that was my foot in the door to the city job. I didn’t realize that was a city job at first. Then, I kept seeing these job announcements [to] come and test, so then I took a test to become a laborer in the paving department. Then, I just continued, and took another test, and became a utility worker in the sewer department; I became the first female sewer repair crew leader. I’m the one and only. Then, I was promoted to night street-cleaning supervisor, so I went to night shift for two years, and then the day shift street cleaning supervisor. Now, I’m kind of back where I started [as] a sewer repair supervisor.
Did your military service affect how you think about wars today?
I’m very proud to be an American; I think it’s very important to have a military that is capable of defending our country. I only wish that there were compassionate, and logical, and thoughtful people, that are at the top making the decisions, and not irrational. I personally don’t trust the current administration.
Has serving in the military affected any decision making today?
The military was just really a great experience for me. Here I was, this kind of orphan kid with no direction, didn’t know what I wanted to do, and it gave me a time-out, to be able to figure out what I wanted to do. Even after I got out, I didn’t know. But, because I had the foundation, and the discipline, that was like a key that employers valued, with jobs. I put in the time, and they recognized that, definitely, and the City of Portland definitely recognized that that training was valuable to them.
What do you think the general public should know about war?
I think it’s important, and even though I wasn’t really in combat, sometimes I feel guilty that I wasn’t, and other people were. It’s not that I wouldn’t have done my part, but I wasn’t in that place at that time. I think that there a lot of unnecessary wars that happen because of greed. The military industrial complex, I had no idea, back in the day. I think it’s greed, and people that have the power move their little chess pieces around, and I’d like to see more diplomacy.
Have you found adequate resources and connections in Portland?
I haven’t really looked into it, I haven’t. Just recently started looking into the LGBTQ veterans, and I haven’t participated in any group meetings yet, but I intend to.
How did your service affect your life?
I’m proud to serve this country, I was proud to serve this country, and I haven’t lost faith in people.
Author’s Note: This project was recently featured in Portland’s Street Roots Newspaper. Read the article here: http://news.streetroots.org/2017/11/10/these-veterans-have-lived-something-extraordinary-portland-student-listens-shares
This interview has been lightly edited for readability. However, to maintain integrity, and to respect the stories of the veteran, content has not been altered from the original transcription. This interview was originally recorded and later transcribed. Questions partially retrieved from:
“Guidelines.” Veterans History Project. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 23 June 2017. <www.loc.gov/vets/guidelines.html>.