In recognition of Veterans Day 2021 on November 11—and in honor of and thanks for the service of so many Black veterans, former service-members shared their thoughts and perspectives on their time in the military and the aftermath. This is the final installment in The Root’s three-part series.
I graduated from La Porte High School on the same day I swore into active duty service. I was entered into the Navy’s Delayed Entry Program by noon, and I tossed my hat by 8:30 pm at La Porte High School. I believed that service in the U.S. Navy was my way out of Texas, and into a future of life experiences in places I had only seen on television.
My first duty station was The USS FLETCHER DD992, homeport Pearl Harbor, Hi., on a Spruance-class destroyer that was part of the first major class of Navy surface ships to be powered by gas turbines. I reported for duty July 8, 1998; I was 19 years old. Walking across the ship’s brow transported me to another world, leaving behind my childish ways and growing into a woman who could think critically and develop a thick skin. My job—or “rate” in the Navy—was Cryptologic Technician Operator, petty officer third class. My duties included: telecommunications support to the fleet (air, surface, and shore), secure satellite communications, maintaining network servers, assuring signal quality and path integrity and providing signal analysis reporting.
I’ve been to places like Thailand, where I saw elephants playing soccer in the street and an orangoutang lit a cigarette for me to smoke. I spent my 20th birthday in Hong Kong, visiting the locations where Jean Claude Van Damme filmed Double Impact. I held a baby wallaby in Australia. I almost missed my ship’s movement in Singapore; my shipmates and I had to climb up a “Jacob’s ladder” alongside the FLETCHER that was lowered to us by the boatswain’s mates—while the ship was moving! I was amazed at how that small liberty boat kept steady long enough for us to get onboard.
I climbed that ladder drunk! And, almost fell in the water—twice.
I loved my time in service. I still love my service. But it wasn’t easy. The issue of weight constantly plagued me. Not to mention the fact that I had a lot of growing up to do. I was a young woman from a small town right outside of Houston, Tx. who had to learn how to deal with pressures of racism, sexism, gender biases (from female leadership), sexual harassment, attempted sexual assault I couldn’t tell anyone about, and again, weight management. All while living inside the iron skin of an environment that could have killed me.
If my ship had pulled into Yemen prior to the USS COLE, I wouldn’t be writing about this experience today.
My orders to the Pentagon were cancelled due to my class date for “C School,” or additional job training for network configurations management in Pensacola, Fla., set from July 2001 to August of 2001. I was feeling uneasy about my reenlistment so I went back and forth with myself over staying active duty or separating because that pesky issue of weight was still looming over my head. When I finally stopped playing around and signed my reenlistment paperwork, I was about two days short of the window for my new duty station at the Pentagon. As a result I was transferred to Ft. George G. Meade in Maryland. My indecisiveness delayed my training, but the duty station rotation date probably saved my life!
My initial report date: 9/11/2001 at 0800 hours.
Out of all the stuff I lived through and bullets I dodged—including all the hot water that I found myself in for excessive drinking (trying to deal with the emotional issues of weight gain), reporting for duty late and near physical altercations for basically being called fat, the only thing that ended my career was my weight.
I found an article on Military.com published back in 2020 that addressed the issues of outdated military height/weight requirements, stating that “little research has been done to address the possibility of an outdated body composition standard that may place more emphasis on being thin versus being fit.”
I completely concur.
According to Military.com, the current DoD body composition standard was made official in the DoDI 1308.3, dated 2002. Prior to the repeal of the Direct Ground Combat Definition and Assignment Rule, which opened all jobs to women, the height/weight standard was dated back to 1984. I was six years old in 1984.
Prior to 1976, many women were involuntarily discharged from military service if they became pregnant. As a result of this rule, the evaluation did not include any postpartum weight gain standards. Speaking of post-baby weight: What about the women who’ve never had children, but are not naturally thin?
Well, in taking a closer look at the two parts of the DoD body composition standard: the weight for height calculation and the estimation of body fat percentage, referred to as the Body Mass Index (or BMI) standard was developed in the 1830s by Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet (1796-1874), a Belgian mathematician, sociologist, statistician and astronomer, using a non-diverse, Belgian case study that was intended to monitor dramatic weight-loss shifts in large populations that may indicate rampant disease and illness.
It was not intended to be a reflection of individual health.
To make matters worse, the BMI has been shown to negatively label people with an athletic or muscular build, and those of non-Caucasian ethnicities, as obese or morbidly obese. According to Medical News Today researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania says that the “BMI is an inaccurate measure of body fat content and does not take into account muscle mass, bone density, overall body composition, and racial and sex differences,”
Minority female service members always have our size, shape and weight looming over our heads as requisites to continued service and promotions. At 5’5" (65 - 67 inches, depending on who’s measuring me), I was only allowed to weigh 150 - 160 lbs.—which was difficult for me because I’m not built for that. By the time they would finish measuring my neck, my bust, my midsection and move down to my hips (the fattest part of my booty) I would fail my weight requirements every time.
This meant I failed the Physical Fitness test overall and, following three failures, was discharged from active duty. I starved myself to get thin. I would do physical fitness training twice a day to lose weight. I could barely walk at one point, due to the stress on my knees and back. As a result, I now suffer from arthritis in my lower 4 and 5 lumbar—and I’m fighting with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) right now to get that classified as a service-connected disability, which would make me eligible for disability rating and other benefits from the VA.
I am among many Black and brown women in all four branches of the military who lost years of service and had retirement denied and promotions withheld over a failure to meet faulty height/weight standards. I finally made the rank of second class petty officer (E5), yet was never able to enjoy the fruits of my labor as a result of outdated standards that I’ll never meet. The shame I feel when I literally have to explain that thighs ended my military career is completely ridiculous.