Interview By Serina Marshall
Joining the military is a higher calling that many brave and admirable persons choose to do every day. One such person that heeded the call is Navy Veteran Jessica Harris. On June 13th 2002, right out of high school, Harris joined the United States Navy. During her time at Sullivan East High School, Harris was part of the ROTC for a year and eventually went to MEPS to join the Navy. When Harris first became a part of the Navy, she was offered quite a few mechanical jobs at MEPS, before becoming a Master-at-Arms as a military police officer; with one of her vivid memories being sprayed point blank with pepper spray. And that is just where her story begins:
What lessons and traits from the military helped your transition to ETSU?
Discipline, respect, leadership and responsibility. I wanted a University with the same aspects. ETSU has structure and adheres to certain guidelines, which limits distractions. I was used to routine and schedule and ETSU has that. They are big on responsibility. I was part of a program called Upward Bound in high school that allowed me to be familiar with the school and campus in 2001, which is another reason I chose ETSU, because I was familiar with it.
How did ETSU help with this transition?
They make it easier for all military members throughout their transition and every step into civilian life. They make it easier for all veterans throughout their transition to become a student-veteran as well as all military affiliated students. The Military Affiliated Student Resource Center (MARC) makes the transition even easier. Just as an example of the support have with the Veterans Affairs Office and the MARC; my daughter got sick the morning of my finals in the spring of 2019, I was frantic as I didn’t know what I was going to do. But the Veterans Affairs Office opened their arms to me and babysat my daughter in the MARC while I took my finals. And this is an exemplary example of what support looks like at ETSU, doing what needs to be done to help the student succeed.
What is it like being both a full-time mom and student?
Time consuming. Hard; it’s definitely not easy. Having a support system is key, along with self-care. The Veterans Affairs Office and ETSU itself help me a lot. I have been allowed to bring my daughter to class when I needed to. The professors are accommodating and I am extremely thankful. I didn’t know what to do at times. The MARC was one of the biggest support systems. There were times when I couldn’t miss class because there was viable information I needed to know, and ETSU helped me. I can’t thank the Veterans Affairs Office and the professors enough in that aspect. It is definitely a balancing act. Sometimes school weighs on you and sometimes being a mom weights on you, but you figure it out. You just keep on trucking, even when you are tired, because others depend on you.
What are challenges you encountered returning to civilian life?
You definitely encounter obstacles such as obtaining work and getting yourself out there. There is no handbook to life after the military, though you think you are prepared. You have to readjust to downtime and make structure for yourself. I don’t give myself a lot of time to think. You have to keep busy. Find a hobby. You just have to get out there and find work or find a purpose. A lot of veterans never took the ACT/SAT to prepare for school, and those are required tests for college. Many veterans have never written a resume or applied for jobs. You just have to be self-motivated and get out there, and I tell myself I have time.
What are your main goals now that you are back in civilian life and in school?
The main goal is graduation and maintaining the highest GPA I can. It is hard being a single mom and student at the same time, but I multitask very well. I do more in a day than most do in a week. I am self-motivated and consider myself a leader. If I see something that is wrong, I say something or if there is something to improve, I make it known. I try to be helpful in any way I can to improve the quality of life for those on campus and other military vets and military affiliated. I am also a hard worker and loyal. We, the Student Veterans of America Organization ETSU Chapter, strive to encourage positive change. We strive to make ETSU the best it can be, while they strive to make you the best you can be. It is reciprocal.
What are some of your accomplishments at ETSU?
I made the Dean’s list my first semester in 2019. I was in the hospital a lot that first semester and my kid was sick, so I was out of class a lot. So, when I made the Dean’s list despite all those challenges, I was surprised. The professors at ETSU graciously provided support to my success. I also became the vice president of the Student Veterans of America ETSU Chapter. There I can foster change within the community, which leads to more accomplishments in the end. I can create a positive change for the betterment of others. And people well after me will benefit from the change. That was a tremendous accomplishment for myself.
How are the military and ETSU similar?
They have discipline and structure. ETSU strives for all students to learn these qualities. College and the military can have the same characteristics. When you leave the military, you come out with the same aspects that ETSU embodies. ETSU is very loyal to its students as well, just like the military is to the United States.
What are other obstacles you encounter coming back to civilian life?
There is a stigma with society and combat veterans. Battling the stigmas can be difficult, you don’t know what to expect. It is non-conducive to mental health. You feel you have to prove yourself in different ways. It is a lot of self-talk to help battle the stigmas that surround you, but with support from family members and friends, you can battle the stigmas successfully.
What was it like when you first joined the military?
I grew up in Bristol and didn’t return to the area until seventeen years later in 2018 at the age of thirty-four. I started boot camp in Great Lakes, Illinois at age seventeen and graduated just four days after my eighteenth birthday. During boot camp, I was a Recruit Chief Petty Officer, offering the chance to lead at a young age. After boot camp, I was transferred to San Antonio, Texas for MAA tech school, which lasted ten weeks. Following training in Texas, I was sent to Sasebo, Japan, where I stayed for three years; 2002-2005. While I was stationed on shore, I took part in a multitude of duties for the Navy. My duties included anything from gate control, where I monitored the coming and going of vehicles into the facilities, to harbor patrolling the waters ensuring the safety of in-port ships and the pier for incoming threats.
You were stationed in Iraq for a time. What was that like?
From Japan, I went to Pensacola, Florida in 2006 where I was a trainer for ASF and a range master. My time in Florida had just begun when I was deployed to Iraq in 2007 to begin my work in Baghdad. I worked in the criminal courts of Iraq as a convoy commander, where I was entrusted with the protection of government officials. I set boots on-ground in Iraq Christmas Day of 2007. The first three months of my tour were easy. But, everything changed on Easter morning of 2008. That morning, as I was heading to work, I felt an explosion that rattled my entire body. It was me and another man standing on the stairs of the building. We locked eyes and headed for the concrete bunkers. That day, we felt 148 incoming rounds and from that day on, it was continuous. I spent seven months in Iraq. Leading up to my time there, I spent a month in Kuwait, then two months in training in Fort Jackson, South Carolina. I was involved in Naval Individual Augmentee Combat Training with people from different rates and stations. There were people from all walks of life. That was where I learned a lot about diversity.
What is something you learned becoming a civilian again?
When you are back from tours or become a civilian again, you are looking and striving for a purpose. You must serve the community. If the community and people need you, your training kicks in and you just go and do. I have always told other military vets, just because we stop serving, doesn’t mean we stop serving.
How have you found purpose at ETSU?
After returning home in 2018, I started back to school at ETSU in the spring semester of 2019 and I am going for my Bachelor’s in exercise science. I am also the VP of Student Veterans of America ETSU Chapter. That is where I came up with the quote about serving. It is fulfilling to know I haven’t stopped serving and I just serve in a different way, which I feel gives me purpose again. ETSU has MARC (military affiliation student resource center). The MARC is for vets, ROTC, dependents and anyone military affiliated. It is nice to be around like-minded people. We provide meals for military affiliated students. Because of the MARC at ETSU, veterans can feel like they have a place to belong and engage in comradery with other vets.