Mother’s Day conjures up many emotions. If you are a young mother, it’s a new experience filled with wonder and joy, and sometimes a lot of messes. For moms with older children, it’s a time to recognize how wonderful your children are, and be proud of all you have accomplished. For a child, you remember the kindness, the nurturing, the support your mom gave you. Unless…
What if you had to deploy to meet the obligations of your military career? What if you had to leave your newborn with family to protect your country? What if now, as a single mom, you had to bond with your child all over again? Would Mother’s Day be different for you? It was for these two brave women who served our country valiantly.
Jessica Erosa and Gina Guajardo are now honorably discharged, living a “normal” civilian life, and enjoying their time with their daughters. But that was not always the case.
She Was So Proud of Me
“My daughter was in the first grade when it clicked that I was a veteran and had served,” said Jessica Erosa. “I went to her school to speak on Veteran’s Day and she was very proud.”
Jessica served in US Navy for a single deployment on an amphibious ship used to transport Marines overseas. In addition, her unit supported the Marines with various missions. A benefit for Jessica was the ability to visit many other countries.
A difficulty was having her daughter one year after her first deployment and having to leave her.
“I served until my contract was fulfilled, and then got out because I wanted to be with my daughter,” said Jessica. “Her dad is still active so it was important for me to return home.”
“When I was still on active duty we had to find overnight sitters to accommodate my schedule and my husband’s – duty is a 24-hour shift,” said Jessica. “We had to fly her to her grandparents and do our best to coordinate schedules. It was tough.”
Jessica grew up in a small town, and once she returned home she found it very tough to adjust.
“I went into the military at 17, so it was all I knew. It molded me,” said Jessica. “My home town was not particularly military centric. Fortunately, I was able to take advantage of the GI bill to go to school.”
You Are Normal
Jessica’s scenario may not seem normal to civilian parents, but for a military parent it’s all too familiar. Trying to balance some normalcy for your child during active duty, and then learning to adjust once you return to civilian life is not for the faint of heart.
“I want other military moms to know that all the feelings you have are normal. You are not the only one feeling depression, anxiety and fear,” said Jessica. “It’s a big change coming from military to civilian life, and you are never certain you are doing the right thing. It takes faith, and finding others who have been through it. It’s important to look for that person or group who can support you.”
It was that need that drove Jessica to try Heroes on the Water and find a place where she can belong.
“I was drawn to Heroes on the Water because they had a woman veterans retreat,” said Jessica. “It unusual to find an event just for women veterans, plus I like the outdoors and was intrigued.”
“HOW gave us that weekend to ourselves, and was the group that helped me find other female veterans,” Jessica said. “Men don’t have the same stress associated with family care. Through that week-end we could feel like women again, and bond with other female veterans. It was powerful.”
Since that time Jessica regularly attends events, and takes her daughter as well, who also enjoys it and can spend time with her mom in a fun, relaxed, therapeutic setting.
“We are spending quality time together, away from all the electronics,” said Jessica. “She kept asking to go, which surprised me since a lot of kids don’t spend much time outdoors. Plus, she gets to meet children of other veterans and bond with them.”
Jessica has helped start another non-profit, Veteran’s Female United, for peer to peer counseling. She truly recognizes the need for supportive environments.
“Why reinvent the wheel? Someone has already been there, so go get help from them,” said Jessica. “Once you take that first step, you realize it’s okay and everyone is going through the same thing.”
Now She Calls Me Mom
Gina Guajardo was a military police officer in the US Army for nine years. She was married to another service member, and had her daughter in 2004 between deployments to Iraq.
“It’s tough for dual military couples to remain married, so today I’m a single parent,” said Gina. “But that was not the hardest part. The hardest part was returning home to a daughter who did not recognize me.”
Gina was only 19 years only and married when she entered the Army. She spent most her time as a field military officer, providing security and assistance for convoys and other military personnel as needed, which helped round out her skill set and provided her with an interesting military career.
After being discharged honorably, Gina returned home to the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where her mother lived and was caring for her daughter. Like many of her sisters and brothers, Gina found civilian life difficult.
“I was able to secure a job as a correctional officer at a private jail, which provided me a very structured role,” said Gina. “That did help me to adjust, although the work was very tough.”
Gina went through a series of jobs including working for the Department of Homeland Security with TSA, a local police department as a jailer, and then a 911 operator. Then some military friends suggested Gina go back to school.
“School was tough, as I was trying to bond with my daughter still and work,” said Gina. “I became overwhelmed and finally dropped out.”
One thing Gina had not done with visit the VA to get help, as she felt like others needed it more.
“I was finally convinced to go to the VA to get some help, and then was able to find a new job where I am today,” said Gina.
Gina is a peer facilitator for Tropical Texas Behavior Health, supporting other veterans who are still just trying to find their best place in the civilian world.
Making Up for Lost Time
Gina hated to leave her 10-month old daughter for her second deployment.
“I missed her first steps, her first words, potty training,” said Gina. “Those are experiences you cannot get back.”
Coming home after a year was the hardest as Gina’s daughter did not recognize her.
“She did not want to be alone with me and would throw crazy fits,” said Gina. “It was why I was working so much. I did not have a bond with my child and that was very depressing.”
Gina is thankful that family was there to help and support, so that she and her daughter could begin to heal from Gina’s absence and start to bond.
“It took about a year before she called me mom. Before that she called me Gina, just like the rest of my family,” said Gina. “She was almost four years old before she started calling me mom.”
Today, however, Gina and her daughter, almost 13, are very close. She’s been to Gina’s battalion reunion and got to see where she was born and the first home she lived in. And she loves to attend Heroes on the Water events with Gina. In fact, she will get a little upset that she does not get to go every time.
Time For Yourself is Okay
“As a single mother, I don’t take great care of myself,” said Gina. “I’m overweight and didn’t feel like I could do anything athletic, which is why I was a bit concerned about attending a Heroes on the Water event.”
Gina learned about HOW through a good friend who was in Iraq with her. He sent out a group chat on Facebook to their old unit talking about all the work he was doing with veteran’s service organizations, including HOW. He recommended they all look up their local HOW chapter and attend an event.
“I was able to attend a July 4th event and took my daughter,” said Gina. “I got to meet all these people and my daughter and I were immediately hooked!”
Gina has been to two of the female veteran events, and she and her daughter attend HOW events regularly. Her daughter now can kayak on her own, and recently got her Girl Scout kayak badge.
“What I like about HOW is volunteers don’t push you to do anything. Everything is at your own pace and you can have as much or as little assistance as you want,” said Gina. “Once I could first kayak and knew I did not need help, it really built my confidence.”
Gina enjoys the quiet and therapeutic experience she receives while kayaking and fishing. Additionally, she meets many other veterans and enjoys working with them.
“Plenty of times I’ve just taken a nap,” said Gina. “It’s like a little vacation, even if just for a day. I can relax, I can think, and people will let you be. You also get the camaraderie, which I enjoy and allows me to support veterans through HOW and my current position.”
Remembering Mom’s Military Style
Both Jessica and Gina gave up a lot to defend the rights and freedoms of this country, a sacrifice for which we should be eternally grateful. They and other women like them deserve a little extra nod this Mother’s Day. You can help us do more for women veterans and their families by donating today to Heroes on the Water. Just consider a small donation, perhaps in honor of your mother, to show these women how much we appreciate their sacrifice.