What Does it Mean to Serve?

Jenny Pacanowski, US Army Veteran

Jenny Pacanowski, US Army Veteran

At first, when asked the question, “What does it means to serve,” it sounds similar to, “Why did you join the military?” “Serving” never occured to me. Escape did. 

I wanted to get out of Stroudsburg, the Poconos and away from the shitty little town I grew up in. In addition, I may have developed a slight drinking problem. The problem was I could not drink enough to satisfy my impulsive urge to push everything to the edge.

However the most compelling reason to join (because “serving” was not even a blip on the radar) was the US Army student loan repayment program.

At the age of 17, I brought the Marine recruiter to my parents’ house; I was so excited. We watched the video about Boot camp, “the crucible” and a couple of commercials of people jumping out of helicopters and repelling down walls. I was ready to join the boy’s club.

However, when the door closed behind the recruiter my dream died when my father stated, “Go to college; be smart, don’t be like me.” But the truth was, all I’d ever wanted was to be like my dad, a Marine.

After training in Tae Kwon Do, boxing, kick boxing and receiving my black belt in mixed martial arts, I was headed to college! Unfortunately, I did not fit in at college. It was missing something. I changed my major and minors often and ended up transferring colleges four times. Afterwards, I worked a minimum wage job at a gun shop that barely paid for beer, let alone rent or my college loans that would soon be due.

Then it happened: the earth swallowed my whole world. In the first three weeks in August of 2001, my uninsured rental house burned to the ground with almost all my belongings. Two weeks later, I was in a car accident that totaled the only possession I had left to my name, my Honda Accord. As I scrambled to piece my life back together, my very toxic and irresistible high school sweetheart left me…again.

It was time for a change, or I would be begging for change on the corner. The Army was the only branch of the military that offered to pay back the entirety of my college loans. (By 23, I had successfully racked up $40,000 worth.)

In all honesty, Army basic training was an adaptable transition compared to growing up in my father’s house. I excelled in the Army. I realized that group punishment was a negative, and in order to survive you had to get the “shit bags” to do their job by any means necessary.

In A.I.T, I looked for leadership and found the beauty of being a part of something bigger than myself in “health care specialist/combat medic” training. We were the medics, the life savers, and we (specifically the women health care specialists) were told we’d be in the hospitals and clinics, not the front lines.

I received my orders to go to Germany and believed all my dreams were coming true: I would be traveling Europe with my friends and training to try out for the Army boxing team.

Two months later I was on the border of Iraq and Kuwait driving a green military ambulance into a war.

I didn’t ask for it, but “Service” appeared. I had a duty to protect my fellow medics. I needed to be strong and reliable so that we could do our jobs. Saving lives was more than medical support for convoys; it was a mission of winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.

My “service” was twisted, contorted and abused by the Army and my leadership. It became something I was embarrassed by and almost regretted except for one thing…my fellow service members. My service became helping them survive in a combat zone. I received high honors with such nicknames as Pacalicious, The Ring Leader, and Steel. 

Ultimately, I suffered a bitter divorce from the Army because they breached my contract and refused to pay my student loans back. I never received my GI Bill benefits since I had traded them for the student loan repayment program.

Today, I am sitting in a new house that I was able to afford because of my VA home loan, as well as my compensation and pension. My service continues to be for my fellow veterans. As a curator of veteran performances (a writing workshop facilitator and spoken word poet) I facilitate creativity, camaraderie and community, nurturing bruised hearts and mending souls. My service in the military provided me with the opportunity to become the veteran I am today, and of that I am proud.