My name is Tyrell, and I met Heidi at a Veteran’s Day BBQ in 2017. I was a Combat Medic in the Army with the 10th Mountain Division, and when I arrived at my friend’s house for the BBQ, he said there was another Combat Medic there that he wanted to introduce me to. That other Combat Medic was Heidi Chang, and her story blew me away, so I asked her to type it up so I could share it with all of you. What follows is her unedited recollection of her experience as a female Combat Veteran working in a combat arms unit.
“A well behaved woman rarely makes history.” This was the mantra in which I carried myself through my military career. It was my senior year of college, while majoring in history, that I decided I wanted to join the military. I wanted to be a part of history, instead of just teaching it, which was the plan. I looked into all of the branches, but it was the Army that drew me in.
I got seasick so the Navy was out. I wanted to be out there fighting the good fight, so the Air Force was out. This left either the Army or the Marines. My mother hated the Marines because of one of her stepfathers and if truth be told, I found them pretty to look at, but once a Marine opened his mouth, I tended to want to hit him. That ruled out the Marines and left the Army.
I confidently walked into my recruiter’s office (I preferred face to face instead of over the phone) I told him I wanted to join. Seven months later I was sworn in and almost a year after walking into his office I left for Basic Training to Ft Sill, OK.
Ft Sill had just opened up to females and I was thrilled because I wanted to do the toughest basic out there. No relaxin’ in Jackson for me. I left the day before Veteran’s Day and sat in reception as a day one for four days. Quickly learning the first lesson of the military, hurry up and wait.
Basic was what I thought it would be. And I tried to stay under the radar as my recruiter had advised, but being a Specialist and having a bunk right by the Drill Sergeants’ office, didn’t help. From day one I stuck out (later I would realize it was because I proved to be more competent but at first I was baffled). The Drill Sergeants thought I was an OCS candidate and were a bit taken back when they realized I was there to be a combat medic, and not an officer. I chose to do enlisted instead of OCS because I wanted to earn my salute first. Hinde sight is always 20/20 though.
I look back fondly at my basic training days. I had great drill sergeants who made the effort not to just train us, but to educate us about the real Army as well. I had joined the Army to do “soldier things” and that’s what basic was. I found I had a knack for rucking, despite my short legs and when Drill Sergeant found out I wanted to do infantry, he made me ruck with the 240. The only ruck I ever fell back in, but I never fell out of the ruck and still finished with my platoon. I thrived and found that I was good at this stuff. And I loved it. I knew I was going to be a lifer.
I graduated basic as an honor grade and was thrilled that my parents (who at first were not very supportive of my decision to join the army) decided to fly out for graduation. A blizzard the week before had wreaked havoc on our training, but we managed to graduate on time in February. I’m forever grateful that my parents made it out to my graduation, because little did I know that it was at Ft Sill that I would see my mother for the last time.
I was on track to be an honor grade for AIT as well. We were in our last two weeks of our civilian EMT side of training when I got the fateful voicemail. I got up before everyone else in the bay, it was a habit I had picked up in basic so that I wasn’t woken up by a whistle. It had been months since the whistle blared as a wakeup call, but the habit stuck. I saw that I had a voicemail on my cell phone and listened as my brother told me that they were taking my mom to the hospital. I called him back, thinking it was probably nothing, since my mom sometimes had the knack for dramatics. My oldest brother told me that she was admitted and on life support.
I went down to formation before PT to inform my platoon sergeant of the situation with my mother. He told me that until I got a red cross message, there was nothing they could do. We went out and did PT and when we got back I called my brother back and talked him through had to file a red cross message. I left my phone in the bay, because it was a test day, and we weren’t allowed to have our phones for emergencies on tests days. I informed my instructors at the school house and they said that I could use their phone in the office after the test to check in on my mom. I called before lunch, and it seemed like mom was on the upswing. I sighed in relief because I had no intentions of being recycled, that would give up my chances of becoming a honor grad and I came there to train and to be the best at that training.
After lunch, I was informed that the red cross message had been received and that I needed to call my family to let them know I got it. I went into the office to make the call. My brother answered the phone.
“Mom’s dead.” The words hung in the air stale and unwanted.
“You’re joking right?” I didn’t even know what I was saying, simply that this strong woman who was the rock of the family, could not possibly be dead.
“N…No Heidi, she’s dead.” My stomach filled with lead and hit the floor as my entire world as I knew it came crashing down around me. A bloodcurdling scream escaped my mouth as I sank to the floor still clutching the phone receiver. My instructor who was in the office with me and my battle buddy blocked the door as the other instructor tried to come in, in hopes of granting me a sliver of privacy in my agony. I could hear talking in the background on the phone as I sob and my brother’s voice telling the nurse that he didn’t think I was in any condition to talk. That sobered me up enough to write down the information. After all, I was a soldier and I needed to get the mission done. I got the red cross message down and waited for what was next.
The school house NCOIC came down and I informed her I didn’t want to be recycled. She tried to console me, but I was already figuring out how I could get home, and not be recycled. The answer was two separate trips. Our school house time would reset once we went down to Whiskey (army medic) training and I could go home then too for the funeral.
I went down for four days when my mother died and came back on a red eye on Sunday night and was ready for my hands on skills for Monday. The rest of the class had taken in two parts, but since I had been gone on Friday, I had to do them all that day. I passed all of my hands on skills as a first time go and on Tuesday I took the NREMT. This test is what gave you your qualification as a medic. If you failed the test three times, you were out of medic school and reclassed to needs of the army. When I found out I passed, I could hardly believe it. On Wednesday I took a PT test and still passed, although not to my usual standard. And on Thursday I went to the student leadership of the month board. I bombed hard on that board, but I cut myself slack since it had just been a week since my mom died. I resigned as Platoon Guide though and allowed myself to fall into the ranks instead of leading my platoon in formation.
I survived my AIT and was .1% shy of being an honor grade. The day I found out I missed honor grade was the only time I was ever smoked for being out of line. Losing my mother is still, to this day, one of the hardest things I went through. I didn’t quit because she had taught me not to. She raised me to be a woman who followed through, and that’s what I did, even as shit hit the fan in Afghanistan.
A year, a month, and day after my mother died, was the day that shit hit the fan in Afghanistan. I was on a dismounted patrol doing Female Engagement Team (FET) and acting as an unofficial supplemental medic. Because I was considered a battalion asset as FET I had to have permission to act as a medic, should things got south. Luckily, I had already talked that over with the platoon medic I was with that day on patrol, when the first IED went off.
The dust hadn’t even settled when the called for medic. I was right behind the platoon medic, who looked back at me and gave me the signal to come with. We came around the wall, where the blast went off, and our local interpreter lying there on the ground covered in dirt, blood, rock, and debris. The medic and I jumped to task putting on tourniquets and looking for further injuries. Our interpreter was in bad shape, but Dustoff was on the way, and the platoon made sure no one maneuvered on us as we treated our patient. We got our casualty as packed as we could and left for the DZ.
We got our interpreter to the bird and as Dustoff was taking off and the squad was moving to link back up with the rest of our platoon, the second IED went off, hitting the guy in front of me. And knocking me out. My ears were ringing and the dust was still settling as I opened my eyes.
“Shit my legs are gone,” was my first thought, but I looked down and saw that my legs were still there. I checked my hands, they were there and then did a quick self-assessment. My face hurt and I couldn’t see out of my left eye or hear out of my left ear. I was pretty sure my eye was gone but that could wait. I looked at the rest of the squad and saw that the platoon medic was working on the soldier who had been in front of me and that our platoon sergeant was already being worked on too. My sluggish thoughts caught up to me and I realized that I was in the rear and that our 6 was completely exposed. (Later I would learn that wasn’t the case but in the moment I did not know this) I started pulling security, since the other casualties were being worked on.
One of the guys drew it to the platoon medic’s attention that I was injured and had me switch out with another guy so that I wasn’t pulling security. I have never been as scared in my life as I was moving from my spot that day. I looked down at the hole where the second IED was and remember thinking we’re fucked if there is another IED there. I took a breath and stepped over the hole, knowing that I couldn’t freak out now and that I still had to help the guys. I did a quick evaluation on the platoon medic, who had taken burns and Shrapnel to his back and then kept the other two casualties conscious as we waited for Dustoff to arrive again.
Battalion wanted us to use a different DZ, but there wasn’t one close enough to us and there was no way we were going to be able to move with no litters and two liter bound patients. Luckily Dustoff told battalion where they could stick it, and used the same spot, which was maybe 50 meters from where we had been hit a second time.
I carried our platoon sergeant to the bird and tried to leave, wanting to finish the patrol with my guys, but the Dustoff medic grabbed me and forced me on the bird. I held my platoon sergeant’s hand the entire time to KAF and swore that if the bird got shot down, then I would quite. Luckily we arrived safely and I was sent back stateside, against my will, to heal up. I received a Purple Heart and Bronze Star for that day. Although I still don’t feel like I deserve the Bronze Star, since all I did that day was what I was trained for.
Being on rear detachment as my guys were still over in Afghanistan was torture, but I adjusted and went to being an aid station medic. It’s where most female medics end up anyways, I had been told, so I should get to know it well. Six months later when my guys came back from Afghanistan I joined them and became one of the first female line medics.
My time as a line medic was the best time I had ever had in the Army. I loved being one of the guys and proving to them that just because I was a chick, didn’t mean I couldn’t hack it. Time and time again I proved to them I could do the job and I earned their respect for it. Sure there were a couple of assholes but, for the most part I proved my grit.
However, the dream didn’t last long, and just short of being in Attack Company for a year, I was informed I could no longer be a part of a maneuvering infantry company, because I was a female. I had bled with, sweated with, and trained with these guys. Brigade had made me their show pony for being a female in combat, and two Sergeant Majors had better their careers off of my experience in Afghanistan, and yet I was abandoned and thrown back to the aid station liked a shamed dog.
Back at the aid station my humiliation and defeat would only be worsened by an abusive NCO who took it upon himself to tear me down and destroy the last shreds of respect I had for the military. The psychological and emotional abuse from this NCO came to a peak at our National Training Center rotation.
I was assigned to work the forward aid station with him and two other soldiers, one of whom I outranked, but who had better favor with the abuser than I did. After not even a full 24 hours in the “box” with this NCO he had so morally and emotionally berated me that I felt cornered and trapped and came up with the only plan I could think of to escape this misery. I wrote my letter explaining my decision to end my life and waited for my turn to pull radio guard that night where I planned to walk into the desert and slit my wrists with my Benchmade knife.
I explained in my letter that I loved my job as a medic and I loved being a soldier, but I could no longer take the abuse and humiliation for being the “wrong” gender anymore. That this NCO and striped me of every shred of dignity and hope I had and I could no longer endure it.
Call it luck, or as I call it Devine Intervention, my platoon sergeant came and got me from the forward aid station because they needed more medics on range coverage before I could execute my plan. The delivery from the abusive situation cleared my head and I was able to gain some perspective. I talked to the NCO and mine’s squad leader about the situation and he assured me he would talk to the NCO.
Our squad leader did talk to the NCO and the rest of our NTC rotation was mild compared to the beginning, in part because we were too busy for the abusive NCO to torture me and when we weren’t busy the aid station was combined to one massive aid station so I had protection from our squad leader.
The damage was done and I had cracked though. I hated my job and dreaded going into work, knowing that the asshole was going to be there and the only thing I could do was report his behavior. But if I made a report against him, then I would look like a female who couldn’t handle a few harsh words and it would reflect poorly on women in combat. I saved what little pride I could and silently endured his abuses for another year before he was stationed in Korea. I had hoped that my platoon sergeant or squad leader would help with the situation, but to them I had become a shitbag soldier because I chose to start a family with my husband.
My unit was not on the docket to deploy and I knew that if my husband and I wanted to start a family, this was probably the best time since we weren’t deploying. But by making this decision I humiliated my unit, the same unit that had made me feel less than human for being a female, and was now referred to as the “Chang incident”. I was done. I was done working my ass off and feeling like shit about myself because I made the choice to start my family and because I was a female. I decided to submit a voluntary separation packet due to pregnancy and give up my dream of being a soldier.
They won. I let them win and for the last two years struggled with this decision. I found it hard to fit in with other women and was angery at what had been taken from me. My dreams, my plans, and my dignity. But slowly I came to realize a couple of things about myself.
One, my worth was not defined by being a soldier. For the four and a half years I was in the Army I prided myself with being a damn good soldier but when I sacrificed my dream of being a soldier for life, I felt lost and ashamed of my decision. But there was no shame in me leaving to save my life and doing what was best for me.
Two, I am slowly, but surely taking back what has been stolen from me by the abuses I endured from my unit, and specifically that jackass NCO. I am finding my self-worth and strength again. I am realizing how strong I really am for surviving everything life had thrown at me, not just my military career but what I survived before the military as well.
And three, what was broken, will come back stronger. I will take the lessons I’ve learned and thrive. I will share my story and with it, hope to strengthen others and inspire hope in others as well. My military career didn’t go as planned, but my story isn’t finished yet.