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Making a Difference Part Three: Insights from a VHP Interviewee

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“Making a Difference Part Three” is the final post in a collaborative series featuring authors from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Center for Women Veterans, the Library of Congress Veterans History Project (VHP) and a sailor whose story is preserved among the permanent collections of the Library of Congress. The following is a guest post by Heather Sandler, a proud U.S. Navy veteran and VHP interviewee. If you haven’t already done so, be sure to read parts one and two.

Ten years, five months, twenty-five days are the numbers that are forever in my memory. I come from a long line of military service: Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy; my brother, father, cousins and grandfather all served. I had a calling to serve, enlisted in the U.S. Navy and reported to NTC Great Lakes on February 22, 1995.

Smiling woman on flight deck wearing goggles, ear protection, vest and radio.
Heather Sandler on the (busy!) flight deck of the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75). Heather Sandler Collection, AFC/2001/001/87289.

So many things happened while I was on active duty, good and bad. I enlisted for four years, extended for one while I was on my first ship and re-enlisted for six more at the end of the first four. This year, I have been out of the Navy as long as I was on active duty. For the first few years after my discharge, I did not tell anyone that I was Veteran. So much had happened, and so much had changed from that initial enlistment and I was so different.

A lot of stars aligning and a chance meeting brought me to the Veterans History Project. When I was first asked to record my story for the Library of Congress, I was really not sure. I asked my interviewer, Eileen Hurst,

Why would anyone want to hear me babble about my service?

I barely wanted to talk about my service to my husband and family, never mind putting it out there for the ENTIRE world to view on the web! It took a long time for me to agree to do my interview, but it was one of the most cathartic experiences I have had. I haven’t watched it since I did it, but it did open a lot of doors for me. I no longer hide the fact that I am a Veteran.

I realize now that sharing my story was not only important for me, but it also is a way for me to share some of my experiences with my family. After my Naval service and upon completing graduate school, I went to work for a member of Congress as a Veteran advocate. I began promoting the Veterans History Project, the value of the Project in preserving our stories and the healing power it can have for Veterans and their families. I have been honored to have had my interview shared in the U.S. Senate, profiled on the Library of Congress’ web site and had my photograph recently selected as part of an exhibit at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport. I guess now I have some answers to “Why anyone would want to hear me talk about my service.” If I am speaking honestly, I don’t know if I will ever watch my own video, but have viewed and used some of the many others that are in the archive.

Group of people in uniform and hats posing with actor Robin Williams with American flag behind.
Heather Sandler (front row, center) with Robin Williams and the crew of the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75). Heather Sandler Collection, AFC/2001/001/87289.

I am active on the VHP speakers’ bureau, a unique program developed by the Central Connecticut State University Veterans History Project.  I am reminded that I am one of a select few, a member of a sisterhood that only comes with service and a DD214. My sense of obligation to the sisterhood is one reason I did my interview. I have said that there were many women who have come before me that were an influence on my service, women like CDR Dianne Tilghman Pape, USN (Ret.), and women who I met after service, like Dr. Linda Spoonster Schwartz. I hope that moving forward my VHP interview will enable another woman or young girl to realize that, like the women before me, I paved a way for them.

I also did this interview for my boys. I did not have them when I was on active duty, and they never had to know what it was like for their mom to be away for deployments or work ups. Having done this will let me show them what a strong and powerful woman their mother is. They are nine and five-years-old this year; they have only seen me in a uniform (the one issued to me at boot camp in 1995) on Veterans Day for a school assembly. I want them to know that my interview was for them first, so that they will know what serving meant to me and why I went into the Navy. Their great-grandfather, my grandfather, Raymond Belanger, was a Navy Veteran. I never got to hear about his time in the Navy before his death. He was a proud Navy Veteran, but no one in the family knows exactly what he did or where he went.

Department of the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal certificate.
Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal Certificate, Sandler’s third such award. Heather Sandler Collection, AFC/2001/001/87289.

My interview was done so that my boys and their future families will never have to wonder what I did or where I went while I was in the Navy. I want them to know that despite the bad experiences, there were a lot more good ones, and that I would do it over again. I hope that they will be able to share it so that my future grandchildren will know that their grandmother was in the U.S. Navy, loaded bombs and missiles on F/A-18s during Operation Iraqi Freedom and that she was a proud member of a sisterhood of Women Veterans.

Woman standing on one side of table in uniform and hat smiling.  Man (John Elway) behind table smiling as others watch on.
Heather Sandler meets John Elway after a USO show aboard the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75). Heather Sandler Collection, AFC/2001/001/87289.

As a teacher and a parent, I am honored to have shared my story and had it captured to be used for generations to come.   Knowing that I have left future generations of girls and women my story and my experiences is humbling.

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