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'It made me stronger': Northland women recount a mix of military experiences

Amber Nielsen and Holly Breeden pose with a photo from when they enlisted in the Wisconsin Army National Guard. Nielsen and Breeden, both of Superior, enlisted together as 11th graders. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com1 / 5
First Lt. Ashley Birdsall says her favorite memory from her seven years in the National Guard is traveling to Vermont last year to compete in the biathlon finals with the Minnesota Army National Guard Biathlon Team. Submitted photo2 / 5
Holly Breeden (left) and Amber Nielsen talk about their experiences in the Wisconsin Army National Guard. They enlisted together as 11th graders. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com3 / 5
Holly Breeden (left) and Amber Nielsen talk about their experiences in the Wisconsin Army National Guard. Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com4 / 5
Superior resident Deanna Benjamin enlisted in the U.S. Navy Reserve in 2005 and served for 11 years. Two Harbors resident Buffy Fellows served for 10 years in the U.S. Air Force Reserve and National Guard.5 / 5

Best friends since sixth grade, Amber Nielsen and Holly Breeden decided to enlist together in the Wisconsin Army National Guard following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

They were scared as they left for basic training at age 17, but also gung-ho and ready to go.

"Then you get to basic training, and you get off the bus and everyone's yelling at you and you're, like, what the heck did you just get yourself into?" Nielsen recalled.

By the time the Superior residents ended their service with the National Guard — Nielsen after three years and Breeden after 13 years — it felt like they were leaving a family.

"When you're in, there's a lot of 'hurry up and wait'-type stuff and you're, like, 'Ugh, I can't wait until I'm out,' looking forward to the date that you're out of the military. But then you look at it, and it's, like, I don't remember the bad times; I remember the good times," Breeden said.

Women comprise more than 7 percent of Minnesota's and Wisconsin's veteran populations, according to the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA estimates that about 3,800 female veterans live in Northeastern Minnesota's 8th Congressional District and about 4,100 female veterans live in northern Wisconsin's 7th Congressional District.

Female servicemembers and veterans in the Twin Ports who spoke with the News Tribune said they generally were treated the same as the men they served alongside, but they faced stereotypes and situations unique to women. While some feel positive about their service, some also had experiences — including being assaulted — that left them feeling conflicted about their time in the military.

On the job

Saying she was in the U.S. Navy Reserve is a great conversation starter, but the follow-up questions are where things can get uncomfortable for Superior resident Deanna Benjamin, who served for 11 years from 2005 until she was medically retired. Benjamin said she can sometimes feel like she's being forced into a conversation she doesn't want to have.

"There's always that barrier. It makes things difficult because you want to say you were in the military, but at the same time, you don't because you don't want to have to follow up with the after story. 'Well, why aren't you in any longer and what did you do?'" she said.

Two Harbors resident Buffy Fellows, who served for 10 years in the U.S. Air Force Reserve and National Guard beginning in 2003, said she has good and bad days when remembering her time in the military.

"I'm not going to lie, there are times when I despise the military. But I think at the end of the day, when I think back about what I actually did, I'm grateful for it. There's no other job I would have wanted. I'm more disappointed in the bureaucracy than the actual service," she said.

The VA is projecting the number of female veterans will remain steady in Minnesota and slightly increase in Wisconsin over the next 20 years. The military has made changes in recent years, including opening all occupations to women, which Nielsen said she hopes will lead to more women enlisting. Nielsen, a teacher at Cathedral School in Superior, noted that she recently had two former female students talk to her about enlisting.

First Lt. Ashley Birdsall wanted to be in a combat role, but that wasn't an option for women when she enlisted in the Minnesota Army National Guard seven years ago. At this point, the Duluth resident has decided to continue to be a logistical officer instead of switching to a combat occupation. She said she's glad to see women have the opportunity now to join a combat unit, but said they should be held to the same qualifications as men.

"If they can accomplish the same standards as the men can in whatever branch that may be, in combat, then they should deserve to serve there. But it's definitely not made for everyone. ... There's a standard, and you should meet the standard," she said.

Inspired to enlist

Birdsall is a career soldier who decided to enlist after she saw the military honors at her grandfather's funeral. She didn't know until the funeral that he had served in the U.S. Army, and it piqued her interest. A good friend who served also fueled her interest in joining the military when she was 21 and studying at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

"I felt like at that time in my life, I needed something to give back. I just needed more direction. I wanted to make more of a difference, and I felt like that was the best way to make a difference," Birdsall said.

The time she spends away from Duluth with the National Guard has increased over the years. The downside is that it's challenging to have a steady, stable life in the Twin Ports — she's held a string of full-time civilian jobs instead of moving up the ladder of a long-term civilian career path.

"It's hard to keep a civilian job when you're gone all the time. ... It's really hard to find a civilian employer who will support that," she said.

Birdsall said she wants to deploy overseas and has been putting her name on volunteer lists to go since she enlisted. The main reason she joined the military was to serve her country and support its efforts overseas, she said.

"My goal is to be a general someday. Whether or not I make it there, my ultimate goal is to make the most positive impact possible during my time," she said. "I'm just a hard charger. I expect a lot of myself, and I set the bar high. I never want to sell myself short. I know that you can plateau at a certain rank and serve your time and just get out, but I live my motto 'never settle.' I'm continuing to look for opportunities, develop myself as a leader, develop those around me."

Fellows decided to enlist because she was 19 and didn't want to go to college, but wanted to move out of her parents' house. Working in the field was her favorite part of being in the military. Her service took her to Alaska, Florida, Germany, Italy, Hawaii, Kyrgyzstan and Dover Air Force Base. She explained, "I saw the world before I was 24."

Benjamin always wanted to enlist while growing up because her grandfather was in the U.S. Army. She enjoyed being around the people in the military, and it's where she met the man who is now her husband — but the military was also a factor in why she divorced her first husband. People didn't understand when she left her family for deployments, Benjamin said.

Nielsen and Breeden were high school juniors in Webster, Wis., on Sept. 11, 2001, and military recruiters were visiting their school within days of the terrorist attack.

"You're so egocentric, and then 9/11 happens and you realize that it is a world outside of you and that it all can shatter in moments," Nielsen said.

The two friends decided to become mechanics in the National Guard so they could go through advanced individual training together and be "battle buddies" in the same unit. Breeden said it was difficult when Nielsen left the National Guard and she had to figure out a new dynamic in the unit without Nielsen there.

A risk to report

Fellows and Benjamin both said they were assaulted by someone they deployed with, with differing results when they reported it.

When someone is assaulted in the military, Fellows explained, their commanding officer decides whether it's investigated. It's a risk to report it to their commanding officer because if nothing is done about the incident or perpetrator, it leaves the victim feeling vulnerable and ostracized, she said.

Upon returning from the deployment, Fellows said she gave up on the Air Force and requested to leave. She didn't formally report the assault until 12 years later.

"I told my supervisor when I was deployed, and she said to not report it because it would just be a lot of paperwork and because we were in a deployed location, it would be more complicated because we're dealing with our deployed unit versus our unit at home — it's a different command. And the person who assaulted me was from a completely different base as well, so it would be three different command units to be involved," Fellows explained.

Benjamin didn't say anything about her assault for months, but then reached a point when she needed to tell someone. After she reported it, her case went before a medical review board, which decided to medically retire her from the Navy. She said she doesn't feel deserving of her retirement status because someone else decided she was retiring, when she hadn't completed the 20 years necessary to retire. She said she now has regrets about reporting the assault.

"They decided that I could no longer be fit for service because of the situation. To me, that was really hard because I felt like I was being kicked out for something I had no control over. I wasn't ready to be done with my career. I was over halfway there to be actually retired," Benjamin said.

The assaults became common knowledge and gossip in their units once they returned home from the deployments, which Fellows said felt like "a double betrayal." Pointing out that she didn't report her assault while in the military, Fellows said she's now on her second appeal for benefits that the VA is denying on the basis that the assault wasn't service-related because she doesn't have a police report.

"I don't want to say it's like going through it all over again, but it's like being told, 'Go home.' It's invalidating," Fellows said.

Veteran connections

Seeking a connection to other veterans, the women are involved in local groups such as Strong Compass, 23rd Veteran and Team Red, White and Blue.

But it's nice to disconnect from the veteran community sometimes, too, Fellows said. A veteran can reach a point where they're only known for their work in the veteran community, she said, adding, "Sometimes you just want to be normal."

Birdsall wanted to be involved in a nonprofit while helping veterans. She doesn't have PTSD, but she has had a good friend and soldiers in her unit die by suicide and 23rd Veteran's work to prevent veteran suicide strikes a chord with her, she said.

Nielsen and Breeden, who joined the Superior Police Auxiliary because they missed the military, have become leaders in the Twin Ports chapter of Team RWB. When she left the military, Breeden said she was isolating herself from civilians. Team RWB helped her adjust in that first year. She is also studying to receive her master's degree in clinical psychology with the goal of working with veterans.

Nielsen said she also continues to use military skills she learned in her work every day as a teacher and how she manages her classroom.

"In my classroom every day, I use leadership, loyalty, duty, honor, selfless service," she said. "It made me stronger in my ability to help students with their self-control. That and bringing them the knowledge of what that flag means, why red, white and blue means so much and why we do Veterans Day and why we stand and say the pledge every day."