Shorty spent her teenage years and early twenties volunteering as a firefighter in a country town located 20 minutes from Salem, Oregon. After receiving a phone call from a close friend on September 11, 2001, saying the US was under attack, Shorty felt a need to do something about it. At that time, firefighting jobs in the army were outsourced to civilians, so Shorty prodded the recruiter to find information about other jobs within the army. “He began to go down this list: Military Policeman (MP), working with the Kiowa helicopter, and then he began talking about the Apache and I thought it was so cool because it’s the only helicopter that flies inverted, so I decided to become an Apache mechanic”.
At 23-years-old, Shorty went to basic training in 2002, took extra time in Advanced Individual Training (AIT) because of a broken ankle, and arrived at her first duty station at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Despite her broken ankle, she arrived in Afghanistan three weeks later with her team and remembers how surreal it was flying into a war zone. “I was young and wanted to kill terrorists”, she said. “I remember watching the green glow of night vision of Desert Storm being covered on the news and it felt like it was similar to that, only this time I was there. When we arrived around Thanksgiving (2002-2003) it was pitch black and I have never seen the stars shine so bright.” While Shorty was working on the helicopters throughout the day, she tried to make friends with the citizens of Afghanistan, particularly one interpreter.
“I asked him what he thought about Americans being in the country and I wanted to have a better understanding of their way of life, instead of just going through the motions,” she said. “When they realized we were there to help and not do what the Russians did, their demeanor changed and they would smile when they saw us.” Like all warfare, things aren’t always black and white, there is a grey area where Shorty emphasized how one minute they’d be swapping stories with their Afghan counterparts, and the next they’d be prepared to fight for their lives because of an insider attack. “There were really frightening times, you get conditioned on the thought of killing and when you come back home, you’re still looking at people the same as if you are still in combat.”
After her deployment she had a difficult transition because she says that she felt like she was thrown out to the civilian world on her own without much guidance on how to adapt. Those around her couldn’t relate, so she self-medicated and had a lot of anger. “Something I felt was really important was that in a war zone, you shut off everything; feelings and emotions. You think every day you wake up is the day you’re going to die. Is this going to be that day, you are consciously thinking about it. When we were flying back Germany to the US, there were civilians on it with little kids, and I watched these soldiers, all of our body mannerisms were uncomfortable, so I realized we were all changed. Nobody teaches you how to handle that ‘On’ and ‘Off’ switch. In combat you’re taught to turn off emotions like in survival mode, and we think how do we turn them back on, and some will never be able to turn back on.”
While Shorty was in the army, she was sexually assaulted adding to her trauma, “I think it’s important that we break these stigmas. It’s not okay for these assaults to happen. The people get caught in their own mind and feel alone, the more people that talk about it; the more people will be able to speak up. I am not a victim, I am a survivor.” Her experiences in Afghanistan, her sexual assault, and her loss of her hero grandfather in 2008, all led to Shorty seeking help in 2009 at the Veterans Affairs (VA) in Virginia, because of a nervous breakdown.
“I came and asked for help and they turned me away. It was the time in my life I became suicidal. I sent a text message out and that person called the police and they showed up on my doorstep, kicked my door down, fought with me, and I spent the next 72-hours on hold in mental hospital in VA. I woke up in the morning, had a talk with myself, and reflected that this was a learning point to grow,” she said. “The doctor told me that I had to define things that I previously made a goal and put it on that wall. Then he said, has anyone told you your goal is wrong?” This was a light-bulb moment for Shorty and those three days changed her life. ”I was in a bottom of a well with smooth sides looking up, been through so much, can’t deal with this anymore, scariest feeling I’ve felt in my entire life. I fought for it and did it. I wish more people talked about their experience openly.”
“I’ve spent my whole life around the water, living on a lake, sleeping in the bathtub as a baby, even skipping school to go bodyboarding along the Oregon coast no matter how cold it was”, she said with a laugh. “I’m pretty banged up, have a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), three ankle surgeries, undergone shoulder surgeries, have a torn up back, and struggled with depression.” After the military while living in Virginia we would go to what we called “hurricane parties” and bodyboard during the storms. The first time Shorty used a 9 foot longboard was a memorable experience because she joked that her 5’3” frame carrying this large board was probably a sight to see. “I had the most fun that day, I drank a lot of water, but in the end, I successfully stood up that day, dammit!”
“When we went to Wake For Warriors surf therapy event held in Washington in August (2018) and met Megan from One More Wave and the rest of the riders, I got up every single time on the board,” she said. “When you are around your military buddies, you don’t have to look over your shoulder because you know they have your back. I’m stoked to be able to get to surf and share this experience with my daughter Bennett who’s 4. When you’re out here, you’re not the top of the food chain; just a small point of existing and all the cares in the world go out the window. Even when you’re tired, you can just float on the water, it’s the most magical thing I ever experienced.”
Customized Surfboard Art
“I was given a ¾ wetsuit and a blue foam-top beginner board and I love it. One More Wave sent me markers to draw on it, and maybe I will in the future. When I go to events, I don’t go for swag, I look at the event. They take the time out of their lives in the moment, that’s a gift enough,” she said. Shorty is humble enough to say she never asks for anything and is thankful, though she is equally as deserving as anyone.
Onward and Upward
When not surfing Shorty enjoys spending time with her wife Kandi, who she has been with since 2010, married in 2013 along the California/Oregon border. “We got married on November 2nd 20 minutes from our house on our original anniversary on the side of the road. All of our friends and family supported us while semi-trucks honked as they passed on by and F-15’s flew overhead during training runs. It was special,” she said. “I want to raise Bennett to know that anything is possible and we will be there to support her.”
Shorty wanted to emphasize how much her wife Kandi and daughter Bennett really mean to her, “Kandi is so amazing because she knows nothing about the military, she deals with my PTSD, the injuries, the days I don’t feel like talking to anybody, and she can spot my ‘PTSD Days’ without even telling her. She would say ‘I just love you more’ when I asked her about it. Spouses with veterans in or those that come after are special people and need their own recognition. They have to deal with our crazy and they love us. I cherish her because she is truly amazing, in 2009 if I could fast forward, the suicidal thing never would have crossed my mind, because I would have almost missed out on this amazing thing.”
Shorty hopes that her story will help other veterans get through their dark days because she has been there and done that and if she can overcome these issues, so can you. “There is someone out there that will gladly take your bad days”.