Major Angela Jackson-Butler takes pride in her 17 years of service to the United States Army. But that's not to say they've been easy years.
From the beginning, Jackson-Butler, now 39, had to overcome barriers and prove her ability and resolve. She's been deployed three times — twice to Kuwait and once to Iraq — leaving her husband, disabled mother, and small children behind for as long as a year.
On Friday, Nov. 8, Jackson-Butler will be among six or seven female panelists from Fort Carson at the Veterans Remember Community Dialogues in the Carnegie Room at Penrose Library. The free, day-long event will feature the aforementioned panel of female service members, as well as a panel of male service members.
They'll take questions from a moderator and the audience about their experiences and emotional journeys. The panels, which are not political in nature, are timed in advance of Veterans Day.
Vietnam combat veteran and activist José Barrera is organizing the panels, and has put on similar events in Colorado Springs since 2005. He says they serve as a way for service members to connect with one another in a more personal way, and to help the community understand their sacrifices, and those of their families.
He hopes for a big turnout: "The audience is really important; people don't want to come and talk to themselves."
What's left behind
Garett Reppenhagen participated in these panels a few years ago. Now working for the Portland, Ore.-based Vet Voice Foundation, he says via email that "the first step to healing our warriors is communication between veterans and civilians." And he adds that women's panels could be especially important, since many female service members deal with harassment and worse.
Jackson-Butler, 39, acknowledges that she's faced challenges as a woman in the military. But she feels like she's treated as an equal in her current position as operations officer for the Warrior Transition Battalion.
"You have to have thick skin, and you have to have a strong backbone, and continue to do what you know is right," she says. "So that's how I face work every day. As long as I come in and I know I'm doing what's right, it doesn't matter what anybody throws at me, because I'm going to be the officer I know I am."
For most of her career, she was a supplies specialist. That job included ensuring the camps where she served overseas had what they needed, from ammo to food. She says she's been fortunate over the years that she hasn't lost any of her closest co-workers to the wars.
Truly, Jackson-Butler says, the most challenging portion of her service has been leaving her family. While a grown stepson lives in Texas, her four other sons are ages 5 to 13. When she's deployed, her husband, Michael Butler, who still must travel for business, takes care of everyone.
"[I] have a husband that's supportive and willing to be there and take care of not only me and the kids, but he stepped up to the plate and took care of my mother, who is a double amputee and has numerous medical problems at this point in her life," she says.
But still, there are challenges. On her second deployment, she left behind a 5-month-old baby; when she returned, he was 10 months old, and didn't recognize her. As the kids got older, she and her husband tried to explain that a deployment meant months overseas, but the boys would still ask every day if their mother was coming home.
While every absence has been difficult, she says the first was especially hard. She remembers how her eldest son, then 3, begged to come with her as she departed the auditorium. As he cried, she slipped away, careful that her own face didn't betray her emotions.
"If I had stood there a little bit longer I probably would have been crying, too," she says. "But it's just the mentality. It's me knowing that I'm taking somebody's son or daughter, aunt or uncle, mom or dad, with me, and I've got to make sure they make it back. I got to make sure that I'm strong, not only for them, but for the family members that they're leaving behind."
Home front cares
Jackson-Butler has participated in two of Barrera's previous events and appreciated the support of the community while finding solace in the experiences of her fellow service members.
"If you go and try to talk to somebody in — the way I say it is, the civilian sector — and you start throwing acronyms at them ... I mean, it's a different mentality," she says. "And so it absolutely helps that you have people around you that understand that, that you can freely speak, and be understood."
AspenPointe master clinician Marjorie Knighton works often with soldiers and their families. She says she often hears that they feel no one understands their plight, or they feel very alone. Forums like this, she says, are positive because they offer both peer support and community support. As she puts it, "Being able to share what I do for you as a soldier, and you supporting me, is a very empowering thing."