Monday, August 15, 2011

Veteran Sondra Wright: A Military Success Story

By: Bonnie Evans

Anti-military feelings are nothing new in America. Maybe today’s disaffection for our country’s armed forces pales in comparison to the peace movement of the Vietnam era, but people are still angry. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been going on for a decade. The two biggest threats, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, have both been eradicated, yet last weekend, a Taliban attack on a helicopter in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, claimed the lives of 31 U.S. troops. The cost of these two wars soars over $1.2 trillion. One must wonder why people keep joining the military, perpetuating this endless mission, and what good can come of it.

Air Force veteran Sondra Wright, of Milford, NH helps shine light on these questions by sharing positive memories of her time in the service. A divorced mother of two, 38 year old Sondra says joining the armed forces was her goal since tenth grade. She explains, “I needed direction in life and I knew that the military offered many awesome benefits. I also felt a sense of pride in being involved in supporting our country.”

Shortly after graduating high school in 1992, Sondra enlisted with the U.S. Air Force. Though her father was a submariner with the Navy, Sondra looked to a different branch because she didn’t want to be out at sea for lengthy amounts of time. The Air Force appealed to her, she says, “because I was drawn to it more than any other branch. I felt that it would fit my personality more… The Air Force had more administrative type roles for me than the Army.”

The Air Force advertises thecountry’s largest community college and boasts scholarships and specialized training. Education benefits entice many youths to enlist in the armed forces. Though Sondra’s biggest reason for joining the service was to find direction, she took advantage of the education benefits as well. She has a degree in Transportation from the community college and has earned an Associate’s, a Bachelor’s, and a Master’s, using V.A. benefits. She currently receives a stipend and all of her continuing education classes and books are paid for by the government.

Using her education and training, Sondra’s military career specialized in logistics. She shipped and received cargo at any base she was at. Some of those bases were in Arizona, Florida, Texas, Washington, Delaware, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, she says she was “proud to be able to be a part of going after those responsible for those attacks—whether it was being at my home station and shipping items to support the mission or deploying in support of the efforts.” 

The tragedy of those attacks inspired many young people to join the military. Though Sondra joined during a time of peace, it became clear that the country would be forced to retaliate against enemy forces. Her second tour in the Middle East coincided with the start of the War Against Terror in March, 2003. She was stationed for six months at a massive air field in Qatar, from which many planes departed into Iraq. She recalls, “[w]hen I was in Qatar, I was there the night that Shock& Awe took off. There was a sense of ‘holy crap, here we go,’ mixed with a sense of pride in being a part of that. It was scary, yet exciting. I remember counting planes and we were like, ‘oh, something is happening.’ We didn't know [what was happening] for obvious reasons of people calling home [and risking security].”

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon, and the subsequent start of the war, did not make Sondra at all hesitant or regretful about her decision to serve. She explains, “I was not hesitant at all. I still remain committed even now as a vet.” The hardest part for her was being away from her two young boys, Eryk and Bryan.

While in the military, Sondra met and married her (now) ex-husband Steve, who was also in the Air Force. While both active in their military careers, the two began a family together. For her first pregnancy, with son Eryk, Sondra was stationed in Texas, away from her husband, who was deployed until a week before her due date. Though being away from her husband for her first pregnancy was stressful, she had one less concern in finding adequate prenatal care. “My experience with pregnancy was very positive. I had all the medical care I needed for myself and my kids, I never felt treated differently. I had to go to the Army Medical Center across town, but it was awesome, just like any hospital I have been in. I felt like I had top notch care.” Three years later, Sondra received the same top notch military care while pregnant with her second son, Bryan.

One of the biggest fears for the new family was the possibility of having both parents deployed at the same time. During her pregnancies, Sondra was put on a profile to keep her out of harm’s way. She was not required to exercise and had to stay away from building crates and other safety hazards at work. After both sons were born, however, Sondra became eligible for active duty and was eventually called overseas. At this time, Steve was in Florida in training school. Her deployment came with only three days notice, so her family back home in Plymouth, MA stepped up to the plate.

“When I got deployed, Dad and [sisters] Beth and Allie stepped right in and were there for us in such an amazing way. I will never forget what they did for me. It was heartbreaking to be away from my kids, but I never had to worry because I knew they were cared for in such a special way.” Sondra’s father took both small boys into his home, and her sister Beth took time off from her job to be a stand-in mother. Both of Sondra’s sisters were active in baby-sitting and helping to raise the young children while their mother fought for our country. “It was just amazing what they did and I hope that every family in the military [in which] both parents are [enlisted] are lucky enough to have that kind of support.” While Sondra served as a hero for our country, her family served as a hero to her and her kids.

At the time of her deployment, current technologies in communication were not yet available. Today, many military personnel are able to see their family regularly via video chat on programs like Skype, or FaceTime on iPhones. Text messaging and Facebook keep people instantly connected to loved ones, even when messaging from opposite ends of the Earth. Sondra explains, “I did not have anything but telephone once or twice a week. Had I had the technology available to me, I probably would have slept better. I cried myself to sleep a lot in the beginning because I missed my boys so much and it would have made my transition into the deployment much nicer.”

Though it was hard for her to be away from her small children, it was not that selfish instinct that led to Sondra to leave the military. The decision arose from a fear that both parents would be deployed at the same time. “I got out because I felt that at least one parent should be out of the military to take care of [the kids] if the other parent got deployed.” Putting her family first, Sondra did not sign on for another tour. She recalls being treated with the “utmost respect” by the military as she transitioned into a new career.

Today, Sondra works as a trainer at the Stonyfield Farm in New Hampshire, an organic yogurt producer. When asked how her past work serves her in her current field, she says, “my military training taught me good work ethic and integrity, and I carry that with me wherever I go. Integrity is my number one. I believe in being true to others and to myself.” She teaches these values to her sons. Now 12 and 9, both boys are active in football, and Sondra enjoys taking them for hikes, to the beach, and on visits to family. 

Sondra recently applied for veteran health insurance, but right now she and the kids receive benefits through her current employer. She still receives and uses education benefits to this day. When asked to comment on the debt ceiling crisis that has dominated headlines in the last few weeks, she explains, “[the compromising] is going to affect the military in a negative way. Of all the areas [of government spending] that were touched, [the military] is the one area that they should have left alone. We will always be in some state of war for the next years to come, and the support is needed for that. It is a shame they even touched defense at this time.”

Sondra’s experiences in the Air Force, through times of peace, terrorism, and war, show the positive aspects of the military. She explains, “I am so happy and will forever feel a sense of pride that I served. My heart soars and I get goose bumps whenever I hear “The National Anthem” or see a military event. I will forever be grateful for the experience and will always feel a sense of regret for getting out.” When asked if she would ever re-enlist, she confides, “I think about it all the time and I may try to get into the reserves next year.”

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