MY NAVY STORY
1997 – 2018
Apr 22, 2018
I have thought about writing this for weeks. The closest I came before today was a rough outline which I decided won’t work anyway. The last few weeks I have dug deep inside, shed some tears, and had many conversations with myself mostly going like “Charity why are you making this so difficult? It’s just your story in Navy history. State the facts, share a few stories and stop struggling”. Well, THAT was my problem. It isn’t just my story in Navy history that I’m writing. It’s my LIFE story.
My life has significantly changed through my time in the Navy. I have been the happiest, the saddest, have received the greatest gifts and suffered extreme loss. My procrastination wasn’t because I didn’t want to share my Navy story. For me, it was how I struggle to put into words, without judgment, without needing to get it right, my life for the last 21 years. How do I give it meaning? Did I give it meaning? Did I have or create any meaning for others? I have no answers to these questions but I know I am right in writing this way for me because as I am writing I am crying. See, for me, crying is and has always been an emotional release. Happy, sad, and everything in between for me has a tear to go with it. (insert smile emoji here hahaha). I know that what I am writing is true to my core and I am grateful to have found a way to celebrate my life story while in the Navy for the last 21 years.
As a child in Western New York near Buffalo, I was super shy and quiet. I spent a lot of time in my room reading and never really felt like I fit in with my mom, dad, or brother. It wasn’t until I started in band that I felt like I fit in somewhere. At the time I thought it was because we all had a common goal of being passionate about music. What I didn’t realize was that I loved band because I was able to be myself through my instrument. I mostly hid my emotions but let them come out through my flute. When I couldn’t get the words out I’d just grab my flute and practice and it always made me feel better. I am an extremely emotional person, which doesn’t mean I cry all the time, but I feel empathy for others to a significant degree which is a wonderful trait but it can be exhausting. Crying just confused my family. They would look at me and I remember thinking that they thought I was weird. I remember when I got accepted to college and I was so excited I cried. My dad apologized because he assumed I didn’t get in. You can imagine his face when I said I did. All of these memories will come into play during my story.
All that being said, I joined the Navy in 1997 after I graduated with a Bachelor’s in Music Education from James Madison University in 1996. I loved teaching but wanted to keep playing and the steady pay check sounded wonderful! I auditioned for the Fleet Bands at the U.S. Navy Band in Washington, DC and in May 1997 I left for boot camp in Great Lakes, IL. I had no idea there was a boot camp band. As I stood in formation on the grinder during my graduation, half zoned out because of the sun, I heard the MC say something, something, “Band”. What I heard next scared the shit out of me! The most horrendous music was being played! Did the MC announce that this was Navy Band? Is this what I joined? For, what seemed like hours, my ears bled as I crafted my escape plan and saw myself running out of the gate back to my civilian life. I had definitely made a mistake. The “noise” finally stopped and I heard the MC say “and now our very own Navy Band Great Lakes will perform”. Ahhhhh, I didn’t know who that first band was until I got orders to Recruit Training Command years later. It was a funny moment!
I attended “A” School at the Navy School of Music in Little Creek, VA. Then, MUC (Select) Kathy Weiss picked me up from the airport. I was scared out of my mind. She was talking a mile a minute and I don’t think I heard any of it. I literally just wanted to put my flute together and practice. I was only at the School for 6 weeks and then reported to my first band Navy Band Seattle.
Upon report, I walked into the band room which was like a big foyer. There were lots of doors with no windows and they were all labeled “Admin, Rock Band”, etc but I had no idea what was behind the doors. I knocked on the one labeled “Admin” and I heard “Must be the new girl”! The band was about 30 people and there were 3 females including myself which was a lot for any band at that time. I didn’t realize then how lucky it was to work with MUC Heidi Willson and MU1 Diane Beegle. 2 women that were in charge, positive female mentors and phenomenal musicians.
At this time band’s ONLY stood on ceremonies. There were no chairs not even at the longest of ceremonies. Standing for 2 hours was not uncommon for the changes of command. One gig we had done was long and hot and I was the only woman in the band. We finished and the Admiral came around to shake our hands and say thanks. He started with the 3 clarinet players asking “Where are you from Sailor” and having nice “manly” conversations with them. When he got to me his demeanor softened and he said “Awww and where are you from little lady” then proceeded to not listen to a word I said. There wasn’t a lot of talk, GMTs, reporting procedures etc. about discrimination between females and males at this time so I just thought “ok that was weird”. Although the guys in the band were like my big brothers and respected my musicianship I was known from that day on as “little lady”.
I loved Seattle!!! I would go and visit my family who lived in Seattle and spent a lot of time with friends and at my church. I even became the Youth Minister. I played very little flute during my time stationed there because the group of choice was the Big Band. All of the woodwind players doubled and we all played in big band. I had some of the most fun in my musical career playing saxophone in the big band there. I learned a lot and for the last year of my time there played lead alto and soprano saxophone which is something not many people know!
I met my first husband, Harold, at the band and we got pregnant with our son Carl who as born May of 2000. A few months before his birth, we got married and I moved to San Diego which is where Harold was stationed at that point. It was hard for me to leave Seattle. I felt like they were my family, my big brothers and my emotions were a wreck. In the short 2 years I was there I was able to learn a lot about big band music, increase my playing on saxophone, learn a little about collateral duties, become Junior Sailor of the Year and was promoted to Second Class.
When I think about my next band, Navy Band Southwest, I have extreme emotions. It was a band of great challenge, both personally and professionally, but first I had my greatest times playing in my Woodwind Quintet. There were so many concert moments where we’d finish the concert and just sit on the stage wanting to continue to play all day because what we had just done was the epic of creation and being with and in tune with one another as human beings. I learned that Woodwind Quintet is, by far, my favorite group to play in. The intimate setting allows for the ultimate in communication and emotional expression.
The most emotional job I’ve ever played was a few days after September 11, 2001. Only a few days after that tragic event we were asked to play a concert in Balboa Organ Pavilion as a dedication, a place for people to mourn together over the losses of life, a place to release their pain through music, and a place to reconnect to the strength of us as a nation. The difficult part was that we, the musicians, were also dealing with these emotions and feelings as well. Until that day, I had never cried while I was playing. However, when we played Eternal Father I looked around and most of the band was wiping away tears. Playing for us was a way to help others get through this pain, but it was also our way, without words, to get through it too.
I made First Class at Navy Band Southwest and was Sailor of the Year but in one of my mid-term counselings I was told “You are too emotional. You need to hold in your feelings otherwise people won’t follow you. The military doesn’t deal with emotions”. Thinking back to this it was a bunch of junk. However, at that time I honestly felt like I was in a place that I didn’t belong too. Maybe I was too emotional. My family had acted weird toward me, I’m now being told this is the reason I don’t belong in the Navy so ok I concluded that I am wrong in all of this feeling and emotions stuff. I watched the guys around me and although I didn’t try to act like them, I fortunately, was enough of a smart ass, that I could get myself out of uncomfortable/emotional situations with them by letting out my smart ass and holding back…myself.
During this time my marriage was in shambles. Harold had moved out a few months after Carl was born and told me not to tell anyone at the band. I kept up the charade for 3 years trying to be “the good wife”. I loved my little son but was scared about the future and totally lost myself to being Carl’s mom and learning how to hide my personal struggles, and later figuring out that I was also hiding my true self as a Sailor at work too. I was lucky again to work for female mentors who were in leadership positions. MUCM Melanie Leketa was my Assistant Director and MUC Inge Schmidlin was in the CPO mess. I had no idea then the history behind Mel’s service and wish I had asked her to share when I was there. **Note: If you are working with a female in our program ask her to tell her story. Ask her questions! No matter if you get along with her or not there is something to glean from everyone!!!!**
This band was the first time I saw how destructive a senior leader with unbecoming behavior could be for a command. One of our CPOs had touched our females on the road in a bar. I wasn’t on the trip but Harold was. Rumors flew all around the band, cliques were formed of who wanted to say something and who wanted to hide it, the females were emotionally upset but fearful of taking steps; it was awful. Harold finally came forward and then I was called in soon after to give my side. Since I wasn’t on the trip I didn’t know facts but most of the people were talking to me about the situation so I could only share perceptions. Action was taken but what I learned was that, although Harold was the one that came forward, I was looked at like the outcast by the senior leader. I was distraught by this reaction and couldn’t understand it but still believed in what I had done so had no regrets.
After 4 years at Navy Band Southwest and VERY ready for a fresh start, Harold and I transferred to Norfolk, VA together. He was stationed at the school to write curriculum and I was at U.S. Fleet Forces Band (USFFB). I was there for 5 months and then was assigned to be the Leading Petty Officer. This was a big move as there were 9 other First Classes all that had more time in than me. To this day I don’t understand the decision but it changed my life!
At this time USFFB was made up of 65 people. I loved being the LPO even though during my time as LPO I had a boss that was unruly and grouchy, a strong personality PO1 mess that couldn’t get along, Sailors who got arrested for child sexual misconduct, kicked out for drugs, kicked out for melingering and falsifying documents, several admissions to mental health, divorces, deaths etc. I realized that the “job” was difficult from a leader’s perspective because it was much more than just about music. Prior to this point, I had handled troubles in my little 5-member group but none of them were this huge. Our Sailors were not creating their Navy story but their life story and life can get down-right messy sometimes and now I was a part of getting them and us through the messy times.
My saving grace, like many years prior to this band, was in playing. I was fortunate to have been a part of a 3-piece group that did not change personnel for 3 years! We had such fun creating music and always enjoyed going to play at the Australians events! I took out the Ceremonial Band here in Norfolk and conducted the Wind Ensemble in clinics a few times. I was blessed to have female leaders like, then, MUCS Jane Hoffman, MUC Inge Schmidlin, CMC Martha Kastler, Alice, WAVES members, and other USFFC female CPOs.
The greatest memory in my career was when I was pinned as a Chief Petty Officer in 2006. I was about 7 weeks pregnant when the results came out. I was still running several miles a day and felt great. I started initiation and was told that I wasn’t allowed to PT for liability reasons. I was able to negotiate and ended up being able to do a watered-down version of the warm up and then had to be the van driver behind the formation of runners to pick up anyone that fell out. This was the theme for my entire season; slow down and be the support. All of this led to my greatest memory. I was a member of the local WAVES organization in Hampton Roads. I had gotten close to one of the other members, Alice Walmsley. She had been a CPO in WWII. Alice was a musician and ran a civic theatre group in Norfolk and was attending college in her 80’s! She was inspiring. She and I went to DC together with some other ladies and told our stories to an interviewer who recorded them and added them to the Library of Congress. She was an amazing leader, female mentor and person.
When I made Chief I asked Alice to pin me and she agreed. When she came up on stage the MC rattled off a small bio of who Alice was. After the MC finished, the audience was silent and then they all stood to their feet and applauded her. Sweet Alice was facing me putting on my anchor and I had to tell her they were applauding her. She turned, acknowledged the crowd, and went back to her seat. After the ceremony finished Alice sat with numerous people sharing her story and was one of the last people to leave the auditorium. She took pictures with my entire group and often times said it was one of the proudest moments of her life to share her story.
In March of 2007 my mini me, the youngest Chief (a name given by the Chief’s during initiation), and my BFF was born. A few months after her birth, Harold and I went over to the School of Music for the Senior Musician Course. After that I received orders to Recruit Training Command to be a Recruit Division Commander. At this point Harold and I were having a lot of troubles so we decided to separate upon this move.
We both moved to Great Lakes but lived and worked separately which seemed to work better. During my time at the SOM, I had thrown my back out and had a lot of problems with it but it had cleared up so I could complete my screening for RDC. Unfortunately, within a week of checking into RTC, it went out again, I was disqual’ed from RDC school and was offered orders to leave RTC. I denied them however because I came there to make a difference and wanted to still do that! I had back surgery, recovered and took over the Recruit Band. This was the band that I had heard so many years prior at my boot camp graduation. Although at my graduation this band scared me, being in charge of it was a thrill! Every 6 weeks I was in charge of auditioning, rehearsing, and getting them ready to perform in front of 6000 people every Friday. Most of the time these were regular recruits. Many of them had some musical background but some hadn’t played in years and I had a month to do something with them to make them not embarrass my Skipper at the graduation ceremony each week.
I took this job very serious and, although I could have just been “the band director”, I felt like I was there to be more and together I could support the RDCs in a lot of ways to truly be our creed. The RDC creed says “These recruits are entrusted to my care. I will train them to the best of my ability. I will develop them into smartly disciplined, physically fit, basically trained Sailors. I will instill in them and demonstrate, by my own example, the highest standard of Honor, Courage and Commitment”. I worked with the RDCs and talked to our recruits who had problems swimming, running, and in other parts of their training. I ran PRTs with the recruits that had difficulty passing. I enjoyed seeing the recruits’ transformation.
Other than my responsibilities as band director I was in charge of the base Command Assessment Team of over 50 people that led assessments for 1,500 personnel on the base, I qualified to stand the CDO watch, and filled in whenever I could as LCPO of the Drill Hall. Without the title, I became the LCPO for our RDCs assigned at the Drill Hall. I got to know them, helped them in studying for exams, wrote their evals, put them up for awards, and loved being for them! I was the only non-red rope to be lumped in with the RDCs for evaluation purposes. I was told that I was the first, non-red rope band director to get an EP on an evaluation and jumped from P to EP my second year there; #28/186 Chief’s.
Then suddenly everything came crashing down. I was taken to Captain’s Mast because I had been seeing a PO1 that worked on the base and Harold reported it. He and I were divorced at this point but wrong is wrong. In the investigation I was truthful and knew what would happen but I couldn’t have lived with myself if I had lied. The things that happened next changed my life to this day. Although the Skipper didn’t want to he had to take me to mast. It was probably the most respectful mast proceeding ever as he told everyone prior to me coming in that he didn’t want anyone slandering me or making this worse than it already was for everyone. The sadness I felt looking into his disappointed eyes was something I never want to see from anyone again.
I had to get orders and was going to go back to MU world and to Navy Band Southeast, right where the senior leader was that I had spoken against in the investigation in Navy Band Southwest. Prior to my move, I showed up to a mediation appointment with Harold and figured it would be short and sweet to talk out vacations and holidays but instead he said he wanted custody of the kids. I’m sure I came across as a crazy woman. The mediator agreed with Harold that I was not a fit parent and because I was in the military and could possibly deploy that I shouldn’t have the kids.
I left and went to Jacksonville. The ways I had defined myself, Sailor, mother, suddenly felt gone. Many of my peers in our program treated me as an outcast, no good, and as a bad seed. I shamed myself like this too which led me into a dark depression which lasted a couple of years. Within 30 minutes of me arriving in Jax I was told that if I ever slandered the name of our program again that I would be kicked out immediately. All of these things just played into how disappointed I was in myself.
I was the female senior leader at the band this time but didn’t feel like a positive leader based on everything that had happened. One amazing thing about being at the bottom is there’s nowhere to go but up! Most Sailors didn’t know my messy story so they helped me get through by trusting in my leadership. One day the females asked to speak with me and said that they had been told that they were not allowed to de-blouse their Navy Working Uniform (NWU) because it was too provocative. I had learned that there are many leaders without back bones and that, often times, they won’t speak to someone that they know is smart. So, instead of going to talk to the source I decided to where my NWUs de-bloused around the work space. After doing this for a week and, of course, not being talked to, I went back to the females and said the coast is now clear to where your NWUs de-bloused. 😊
I went through a lot of counseling while in Jax, found out that I am a Codependent, attended 12 step groups for codependency and, more than anything, played a lot of music. I had so much emotion from all of these events and I am grateful beyond belief for music being the conduit in my life for expressing my emotions. When I was so lost I couldn’t find words to come together, music helped me to express my feelings. This is what we do each and every day as musicians. We are the conduits for others to release and feel through our making of music; it’s a gift. I played in the woodwind quintet, big band, saxophone quartet, led the ceremonial band, and conducted the wind ensemble.
I truly enjoyed each and every moment/lesson of the 3 years I was LCPO in Jax. We had some great times like when I was in the dunk dank as an MWR fundraiser, when we would have yoga sessions down by the marina and especially all of my many talks with my Sailors. I learned a lot about handling very complicated, emotionally charged situations like when 2 of our Sailors had critical injuries and I was the one who got the call and when many of our Sailors lost children I was the one to process the paperwork and sit with them after their loss.
My greatest joy came when I was chosen to fill the Senior Enlisted Leader position. I’d be a Chief in a Master Chief position. This was where I felt I had longed to be. It wasn’t about the title but the job. I was in the middle of creating the mission and vision with my boss, I was his right hand, I led the CPO mess, and made sure the Sailors received what they needed to not just do their job but to accel as Sailors, musicians and people.
Around this same time period yoga came into my life. Through the training I realized that I was never 100% myself at work. I had all of these emotions that I held back. Granted, there are many times in critical situations holding back my emotions to make urgent decisions was where I received my power. However, I mostly held them back in fear of not being viewed as good enough and being viewed as weak and like I don’t belong. Having emotions and expressing them can come in many forms not just in sobbing tears. I don’t mean that we should all sob and be a mess but what I mean is that we should be able, no matter the environment, to express what is important to us, express if we are sad and admit it, speak our truth, and to not have any of these things held against us negatively as leaders.
I transferred to USFFB again in 2016. I left Jax with my new husband Shane and a great confidence in myself and better acceptance of not only who I was but who I wanted to be. I checked in with my chain of command and, although a bit fearful, let them know that my plan was to retire and that I was going to pull myself out of qualification for promotion. Now every time I had talked to my superiors before about retiring they’d say “you don’t want to do that” or “you can’t do that to us”. I dreaded hearing these shameful and guilt-ridden lines again but wanted to be true to myself in sharing my plans. What I got this time was “Charity we would be very sad to see you go but we will support you in any way we can to fulfill your goals”. WHOA!!! I was asked about pulling myself from promotion with this line “we understand you want to be for others but you’ve been deserving of being a Senior Chief for a long time and we’d love to see you give it one more chance. If you make it and want to retire we’d till support you but at least give it a shot”.
I felt heard and cared for. I felt like my wants and needs were important and I felt loved. So, I gave it a shot and I picked up Senior Chief! I am at this moment, but not for long, the only female Senior Chief in the Fleet Bands. I have to say being so close to my dream of being a Master Chief truly created issues in me deciding on whether or not to retire. What I realized was that I can’t be a yes for my other dreams that I’m currently say no to for a title no matter how much I wanted it. I still am working through this one but know it’s the right decision for me and my family. No regrets.
This has been my life as a female in the Navy, as a perfectly imperfect and vulnerable human being for the last 21 years. I have shared a lot about my female mentors but I’d feel remiss to leave out the fact that most of my career has been surrounded by incredible male mentors. I’ve learned in the Navy that it’s ok to view us differently because it’s our differences that make us stronger. This goes from everyday little things to the deeper reasons of how even men view their careers differently than women. I’ve become a better leader listening and accepting the differences of both men and women and feel as though my job the last 12 years in the Chief’s mess has been to train and bring awareness to the men in how to integrate us without ostracizing and squelching them in the process. It’s in the acceptance, acknowledgment, and mutual respect of each other where the true growth can begin.
As I look around my home office where I write this I am surrounded by reminders that my time in the Navy is coming to a close. Piles of copied medical records, transition paperwork and a bin filled with things for my sea chest are staring back at me. Retirement/separating from the Navy is an exciting thought but a fearful one as well. I don’t know what the future holds but I never did each day in the Navy ether. Some days, had I known what was heading my way, I probably would have chosen to stay in bed but I didn’t. I got up, ignorant to how the day would unfold and hopeful that I would make a difference and then make it back home safely. I trusted that there was a great plan for my life and hoped that it included helping others to have a better life in some way too. Looking back on the last 21 years, my greatest hopes are that I made Sailor’s lives a bit more joyful, was able to inspire others to be their greatest selves, and that, through music, gave opportunities for others to feel. I especially hope that the last few years of my growth in allowing my true self to shine that it has allowed other military members the opportunity to give themselves permission to let their true selves shine in any and all environments too. I am proud of my service and proud that I was able to meet so many amazing people along the way who gave me opportunities and guidance to grow.