Female Veterans Programs

My Military Story by Elaina Hajduk

            It was 2:00 in the morning. The faint light of my flashlight shone as I tried to print my last name and last 4 of my social security number on my underwear. I made it to my number one choice, my only choice: West Point.  And here I stood marking my underwear in the middle of the night.  I didnt care what it took. I was going to make it. Nothing was going to get in the way of my dream- not even performing stupid menial tasks in the middle of the night. 

            I had decided my fate several years before. I was a mere 8th grader when I proclaimed to my parents that I wanted to go to West Point. My dad beamed and said, “Lain, if you graduate from West Point I will give you $10,000.”  This was quite a claim coming from my dad.  First of all, he did not have $10,000 to give me and second, I doubted that he would give it to me if he did! Nonetheless, my journey began. 

            In high school, I did everything I needed to do in order to secure my acceptance to such a prestigious school. I had no doubt that I would get in. I only applied to one school. There was no back up plan because as far as I was concerned, I was going. Looking back, I cant even believe I did that. My mind was set. I had a goal and nothing was going to get in my way. That is how we did things in my family, and this is still how I do things today. Call it arrogance, call it determination, but this drive is what pushed me to enter a service academy that had only begun accepting women in1976. For 174 years it had been a male only institution and now here I was in 1982, with the odds against me. I did not see obstacles, all I saw was my goal. 

            July 1, 1982 was reception day, or R-Day, and my first day at West Point as a plebe. But believe me, it was no reception. My high school graduation was only 3 days prior. I sat in Miche Stadium with my mom and my brother, Matt. An officer addressed us and said, “say your goodbyes and file down to the buses.” I followed the short orders immediately. My mom must have been crying, but I did not look back. I was on my way.  I was nervous, yet excited to be there. I walked for about five minutes when the excitement gave way to full-blown nervousness, which gave way to what was I thinking?! Thankfully, I had two incredible roommates that first summer- the one that they call Beast Barracks. The first was brilliant, the other was funny and we all clicked and worked together to get through a grueling summer.

            As the newest class, our ears rang with the shouts from our instructors, but amongst the clamor, I also heard a whisper, women don’t belong here. I heard it in the classroom when instructors singled me out. I heard it at the dinner table when the men would tell off-color jokes and stare at me, there eyes daring me to say something. I felt it as I walked down the hallowed West Point halls wearing a uniform designed for the body of a man. Despite that, we women succeeded, and we did it together. 

            I graduated May 28, 1986 as a top scholar, a national champion, a national record-holder in power lifting, and an All-American. It was one of the proudest days of my life. I had met the challenge and succeeded. Four years of hard work had paid off. The women I met at the academy are the most incredible women I have ever met. The relationships we forged remain unshakable to this day. My female classmates gather every year for the Chicks of 86 reunion. We made the path easier for the women who came after us. You are women who have done things and gone places few women have before you. You have faced adversity and odds that were stacked against you, you have heard the whisper, “you don’t belong here,” but despite that, you have succeeded and because of that you have made the path easier for the women who come after you. What you have done matters. You inspire and encourage others to break through the barriers and go after their dreams. 

            The weeks after graduation were a whirlwind. I got married, said goodbye to my husband and headed to Fort Rucker, Alabama for my officer basic course and flight school. Saying goodbye is what military couples do and I thought nothing of it. While most newlyweds spend the first year getting to know each other, we spent our first six months in two different states driving 10 hours to meet each other on the weekends. I was at Fort Rucker for one year where I learned to fly the UH-1H (Huey) helicopter.  From there, I shipped off to Germany with my new shiny wings and butter bars and began my official military career.  It was another unknown and another challenge. My life was full of change, challenges and unknowns- and I was thriving. 

            I was in charge of my own platoon and 13 of my very own helicopters at the ripe old age of 23. Platoon leader was one of the best jobs I have ever had in my life. Managing and leading my own platoon afforded me responsibilities beyond my years. I loved my soldiers. We worked and laughed together, had profound respect for each other, and bonded through it all. But as a woman in a mans Army I had to maintain a professional distance. I addressed the warrant officers and soldiers under my charge by title only. I was always conscious that I was only 23 years old and a woman in a nontraditional role.

            As a leader, I didn’t always follow tradition. Challenging the norms took more than good ideas, it took getting people to believe in me first before getting them to believe in my ideas. I made it a practice to allow my soldiers time off whenever I could, even if it was the middle of the day. Our mission was command and support so our helicopters flew 24-7. My guys worked weekends, nights, you name it. So if it was Monday and I had a slow day, I let them go home and see their family. One time, after sending one of my warrants home in the middle of the day, I was called into the Battalion Commander’s office. He told me that Major so and sos wife saw warrant officer so and so home today and wanted to know why?  I said, “Sir if you give me her home number I will be happy to call her at 2 am this Saturday when that warrant officer is off flying a mission and she is in bed sleeping.” I don’t think he appreciated my humor but he got the point and left me alone. My soldiers knew I stood up for them and they appreciated that. I put my neck out for them and, they in turn, did the same for me. I never had to ask for volunteers for the bad missions. There were always people who stepped up to the plate.

            My three years in Germany taught me so much. The leadership skills I learned as a platoon leader shaped me as a person. Those lessons I learned apply to civilian life, heck they apply to parenting. They are universal truths that I still abide by today in my civilian career. I learned that when you go someplace new, its important to embrace the culture and the people and your enjoyment and satisfaction are greatly enhanced. This was a lesson I took with me in my civilian life when my husband and I moved constantly for the first few years after we got out. We always looked at moving like it was an adventure and wanted to experience everything our new environment had to offer.

            After my term as platoon leader, I became the Battalion logistics officer and helped prepare my battalion for Desert Storm. I was sent back to Fort Rucker for my officer advance course before my battalion was deployed to Desert Storm. I felt a sense of pride and accomplishment knowing my battalion was going off to war well trained, well prepared, and well supplied. I finished my officer advance course and decided it was time to leave the Army. My oldest daughter was just a baby and I decided I wanted to stay home with her.

            The transition to civilian life was not easy. For years, I had been somebody, now we were in a new place where no one knew me or knew anything about me. I was used to being a rock star and now I found myself not feeling so rock-starish. I remember when we were living in San Antonio Texas, I went to join a gym. There was this woman who was about my age, sitting behind the desk looking down her nose at me. She made snobby, rude and condescending comments to me the entire time I was trying to sign up. After all, she had a job behind the desk of a health club and I was just some young stupid mom who was coming in with my baby to work out. She did not think much of me at all. After tolerating her long enough, I spouted off, “Listen honey, Ive done more in 1 week than you have done in your entire life so cut the crap and just give me the application.” 

            And that about sums up my transition to civilian life. I felt like I went from being a somebody to being a nobody. It wasnt true, but that is how I felt. I am sure some of you can relate. So I went and found support, seeking to surround myself with people who were encouraging. Transition is difficult for a lot of people. You feel like youre the only one experiencing doubt and fear. Thats just not true. If you reach out to others, you will find there are many who feel just like you do. You will not be stuck in a rut forever. We all go through seasons in our lives, some handle it better than others. For me, it was a season to shape my childrens lives and I had to adjust to that. And eventually, I truly embraced my new role. Now I see that those were wonderful years and I truly treasure them.

            After several moves, our now family of six is back in Syracuse, New York, not far from my hometown of Canandaigua. Another bout of restlessness lead me to get my master’s in math education. I have been a high school math teacher at Fayetteville Manlius High School since 2004. It is a career that I truly love, and one that I truly have loved every single minute of. 

            When you transition to civilian life, pick a career that inspires you. Choose a career where you can follow your passion. You will never regret it. I have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of my students every day. That is what inspires me.

            I have never really left the military; it is part of who I am. If you dont believe me, ask my students. They will tell you there is a lot of military in my blood! The students at the school started a club called Patriot Club whose mission it is to support our veterans and increase community awareness about Patriotism. In addition, I have had the opportunity to serve right here at Clear Path. One notable experience was when we invited World War II Veterans to tell their stories. The kids spent months getting ready. I had speakers come in to talk about the history of the war, how to make a documentary, how to interview someone.  They practiced and developed questions to ask. I vividly remember sitting in the room with my daughter who was the interviewer, one other student, and a World War II veteran and his wife. The veteran was describing his experience in the war and all of a sudden, he started to cry. He said he had never talked about his experience before in this depth and he was happy someone had asked. He was thrilled that the younger generation took the time to listen to him and honor him for his service. It was a very moving experience. One I dont think any of us in that room will ever forget. The kids in the group who conducted the interviews were changed that day.  Never again did they look at a veteran the same way. They were moved to tears at times and felt a connection to a generation who gave so much to this country.

            So as a veteran, I choose to honor veterans and active duty military. I too understand the sacrifices. I too have spent the holidays alone in a tent missing my family.  One year, my platoon was at gunnery in Grafenwehr Germany over the holidays. It was a real bummer and no one was happy to be there. I went to get my mail and found a package from the Disabled American Veterans. My grandmother always made sure I got those packages. I was so excited and everyone gathered around me asking, ‘Whatd you get?” It was like a bunch of little kids at Christmas. I shared the contents of that box with my platoon and that one little package changed that day for us. We played cards and Yahtzee and we went from being really bummed about being there to being thankful that someone had remembered that we were there. That experience is why the Patriot Club sends packages to soldiers overseas. I tell the kids that story and truthfully sometimes it brings tears to my eyes because that package meant so much to me. The kids realize the impact they can have on supporting our troops. And this is my message to you. Tell your story because it encourages others to help other veterans. You are the face of the military to other people and when you share your story with them, they make a personal connection that moves them to action. 

            I have to be honest, when Char asked me to speak, I didnt think I had much that you would want to hear. I thought, “I didn't do anything special. Why would they want to hear from me?” But then as I sat down to write my story, I thought, the purpose of telling my story to you is not to emphasize me, but to encourage and support you. Your story will have the same effect on others. The military has shaped who I am. I am grateful for the opportunities I have had. Now I want to give back to those who have served and still serve today. I know that nothing I have ever done has been on my own. There have always been people there who have supported me and encouraged me. Now it is my turn to be the person who encourages and supports others, to help them achieve their goals. I am honored to have had the chance to speak with you today with the hopes that my story has encouraged you. 

Thank you.