Raising Our Voices: Keisha Sweeney

Feb 26, 2021

The inaugural cohort of the Women Veterans Leadership Program was tasked with a capstone project of writing their own transforming/emerging story, one of four story types that make up the Storytelling Project Model. Below, we have featured one of those stories.

Content warnings: parental abandonment, physical and emotional abuse, sexual harassment, sexual assault, thoughts of suicide.

I wanted to feel every bevel. Every groove, in every stone, as I sat in direct sunlight in my Mazda. I’m not sure what I was waiting for. Perhaps another solution, a change of heart, a voice from the grave, a last minute phone call offering help. Whatever I was waiting for, it never came. I can still hear the door chime as I walked into the pawn shop that unbearably hot day. As I walked to the counter, I wondered if there was any other way I could feed my child aside from turning over the last piece of my grandmother to these unknown people.

My grandmother’s wedding ring. It seemed to be calling out to me from the pristine glass counter. After a brief exchange, and little more than a hundred dollars in my hands, I went back home, only to realize I had nothing else of value and no money. I knew the inevitable was only a few days away, and I had to wonder how the hell I got there.

I was never the best; I was never the worst. My mediocrity was only put on center stage by the major authority figures in my life. I wasn’t the best in my household, my school, or my job. The overwhelming feeling of mediocrity felt like a frumpy, unattractive outfit I wore daily. It manifested in my posture, in my voice, and in everything I did. I was always the tallest girl everywhere I went, but slouched myself to adhere to the height standard for my age. I slouched my personality to fit every other personality, and I slouched my academics to fit everyone else’s.

I have health issues that make me never want to leave my house. I came from a family where I wasn’t the favorite. There was my sister, my mother and I, and my sister was the apple of her eye. My mom then spent years fostering a house full of children, and I was even the least favorite among them. As a child, I spent several family vacations at home, alone, for days; notably, when my mother took my sister and all the foster children from our home in Wisconsin all the way to Disneyworld in Florida. I was in middle school. To this day, the VHS tape of their trip exists. In it, you can hear my sister, off camera, asking my mother if she misses me, to which she replies “Krystal…,” then they continue on with all the fun. The feeling I had while in that house alone, was essentially the feeling I would have most of my life to this point. Eighth grade Keisha had no idea how to effectively navigate a week alone, and into adulthood, I typically felt much the same way.

When I entered the military, I had already endured many years of abuse in every imaginable form. However, I didn’t present like someone who had been through a lot. People have never really known what to do with me, or where to put me. I’m nothing that anyone expects, ever. I was typically not accepted in my own racial demographic; I didn’t fit in with my family, so I could not wait for something different. Feeling alone, and essentially like I was just making my way through life with no real plan, I remember the moment I saw a formation of F-15s fly across the TV screen. Sitting in that old recliner, knowing that I was quite the rolling stone anyway, an entire organization of rolling stones was extraordinarily appealing to me. Somewhere I would maybe fit in…A rolling stone among rolling stones.

Up until that point in my life, there wasn’t much I was ever motivated to do, but when I did have drive, it was tremendous. The time between that moment in the recliner and the time that I was on a plane going to San Antonio was swift. Upon getting to Lackland Air Force Base, I initially felt the rare feeling of being special, exceptional even; however, the everlooming spirit of mediocrity soon took over there, too.

Here I was across the country, and still plagued by the same affliction. I was doing enough to make it, but not doing my best. This wasn’t something I was cognizant of. While I was there, it really felt as if I were giving my all—not good enough to be exceptional, but yet good enough to make it. I would regularly get comments about lacking motivation. Even when starting over on the same playing field as so many other women, I still felt unworthy and undeserving of anything great. I had successfully achieved FAA certification to become an air traffic controller, and made it through the tech school, which is notorious for its 50 percent washout rate. However, all I could think about was the mistakes and blunders I made while on the journey to graduate. Again, I wore it like an ugly outfit—an ugly outfit I wore to my first assignment. As a Black woman, the lack of people like you in the same space is painstakingly obvious. Black women aren’t common in air traffic control. It was one of those situations where there was only a handful of us, and I knew I didn’t fit in with them either.

Instead, I spent my leisure time convincing myself that the grossly inappropriate advances of a noncommissioned officer in my flight were flattering, as opposed to disgusting. I found myself being unjustly pushed out of the career field in what became a whirlwind year.

My certification card from the Federal Aviation Administration—the best thing I had ever earned—was being taken from my hands; as this was happening, I could only think about the time spent being snuck into his home, while staring at the photos of his wife…the wife whom he claimed to have left. I thought about the times I was asked to bail him out financially, then I thought about the lack of support when I was being processed out of the career field. I looked around as the only person by my side, was the woman who treated me as her own personal secretary for the next several months while I transitioned out of air traffic. Though I felt tremendously alone, I somehow still felt at home and comforted by the failure which I felt was imminent and inevitable.

The remainder of my Air Force career was a mixed bag of happiness and friendship, and me going back to the only thing I knew…being a rolling stone. I only knew to flee when things began to get tough. I saw the next cloud of sexual harassment and an impossible work environment rolling in, so I did what I could to take temporary duty travel. Upon return, it had only gotten worse, so I requested a permanent change of station. At my new base, I was continuously disparaged, insulted, and mistreated by senior noncommissioned officers, who wore their self-entitlement on their sleeves. They felt that the airmen and junior noncommissioned officers were at their beck and call for sex, and whatever other ridiculous demands they had. The environment became so unhealthy that I began to retreat. I would use all of my leave to go to Jamaica, which had become a place of comfort for me. I considered never coming back, but I always did.

When I was stateside, I had stopped going to formation. I ended up getting a letter of reprimand by a senior noncommissioned officer who was brazenly sleeping with airmen, but this went largely undetected because she was a woman—a married woman. All of this happened while I was still being spoken to inappropriately by another senior non-commissioned officer who decided it was appropriate to show up at my home unaccompanied when I continued to fail to go to formation. I was getting help for my mental health, but instead of respecting the fact that I was trying, one of my friends from California—a state on the opposite side of the country—called to tell me that their new chief had been telling her how much of a train wreck I was, after I spoke to him in confidence while he was my squadron superintendent.

I resigned myself to the fact that I loved the Air Force as a whole, but I felt used, and tremendously tired. I took steps to get out early and thought that was the answer. It wasn’t. At this time in my life, instead of seeing my service to this country as something to be proud of, it only evoked feelings of failure and embarrassment for me. I felt that I somehow had something to prove. I threw myself into school and put unreasonable pressure on myself. I had a 4.0 GPA but all I could think of was how the relationship I had gotten myself into on the tail end of my military service was dissolving. I found that when school was on break, or between semesters, I could no longer sit with an idle brain; I no longer even knew who I was.

Once I was completely separated from the United States Air Force, and while school was not in session, I enveloped myself in risky behavior and all the wrong people. I felt as though I was still running from my mediocrity like it was going to kill me. I was consistently around people who only sought to take from me, and who did not care about my well-being. This all came to a head when I found myself drunk one night, crying and barely whispering “no,” while a “friend’s” boyfriend was on top of me.

My journalism professor at the time—my late mentor, Ken—knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t tell him about this. The people I confided in felt it appropriate to tell virtually everyone I knew. As I was left to deal with the mental and physical effects of my assault, I felt that death was a much better option. I voluntarily checked in to the VA hospital for mental health, and went back into pharmacy, which had ultimately become my career field in the Air Force. I had endless pharmacology knowledge, but still permitted a mediocre level of work from myself.

In my off time, I was enjoying a new horrible relationship. The man, much younger than me, was sicker than anyone else I knew. Once, after just having surgery at the VA, he locked me out of my own car outside of the pharmacy, while I vomited as a result of an adverse reaction to the anesthetic. On another occasion, he reached through my car door window and began to choke me. As I looked into his eyes, I knew I had to get away. In the process of getting away, I discovered I had the most beautiful thing that had I had ever seen, growing inside of me. My little bean. My best friend. My running buddy. I couldn’t think about anything except the fact that even though I never saw a child being part of my plan, I knew I was bringing my beautiful bean to be with me on this earth.

I continued through life, loving my daughter to bits, but just feeling like I was running a marathon with an unknown destination. Along the way, I managed to introduce even more toxicity into my life when I began dating someone in recovery. I knew nothing about drug addiction prior to that. I thought that once you were sober, that was it. But alas, this individual led me down a potentially deadly road of abuse. By this time, my mother had stepped in to help me with my daughter. Something I am just finding out is that she secretly tried to get her to call her “mom.” As I held my daughter one night, as we both cried in a dark bathroom while he was kicking in my front door, I knew I had to do better for her.

My acceptance of being less than exceptional was fine for me, but now I had someone else to think about. After paying for a new door, I left the only home we knew, for a better home, but life caught up with me, and the “destination-less” marathon became too much. Even with working overtime, I couldn’t maintain our lifestyle, and I subsequently lost our home, and every single thing in it—every toy, every photo, every piece of furniture, every outfit, everything. I remember driving around with my fish in the backseat, and my cat sitting on my shoulder in the front. My daughter was working security for the fish in the back seat. I was going from hotel to hotel, thinking that I could somehow patch up my life and start running the marathon again. That was the only thing I aspired to do. One day, when I realized I was out of funds, I asked my mother if I could use her bathroom for a little while to get myself together. Once she said no, I ended up parked down the street, drifting off to sleep with my child in my arms, questioning why I felt the need to stay in Orlando, suffering.

I went to the one city where I knew there was at least one person who loved me—Chicago, where my aunt lives. Once there, I ended up checking myself into the VA hospital, and subsequently began an intensive outpatient program for mental health. Up until that point, I knew that mental health care was important, but I didn’t know the impact it could have on your life. I had an entire team of people behind me who made me feel not mediocre. They made me feel exceptional, and like I was not just another number to them. They reminded me that even if I didn’t do the best in school, I was in a school for gifted children. Even if I wasn’t the best air traffic controller, I was an air traffic controller. Even though I made some mistakes, I was in fact, an amazing mother…being in the middle of awesome, still means you’re awesome. They explained mental health to me in a way that made me realize that I could live an exceptional life, that I wasn’t mediocre. They inculcated in me that it was an ongoing journey and that road blocks were going to come up, but they are just that: road blocks, not the end.

I had never felt so enlightened. I had never felt so confident, cared about, and loved than I did then. I put all the boundaries in place to ensure that I knew no matter who the culprit, toxicity was not something that was going to be in my life.

Through getting what I needed from the resources available to me, I had the road map to a life that could be lived and not just survived. I returned to Orlando to a relationship that is actually healthy. I began doing things that were good for me. Believing that I was exceptional and not just mediocre has been life changing for me, because it brought me to all of you. In making my new life about service to others, I found the Women Veterans Leadership Program. And during that first session, I was inspired to a level I had never previously experienced. As I listened to all of the ladies, many who share similar experiences, I realized that I wasn’t different or less than. I realized that I had done great things too, and I could do even more. As I listened to Larissa speak with passion about Circle of Arms, and held her business card in my hands, I knew that I could make my passion into something too.

Now, as I stare down at my own business card, I reflect on that last glimpse of my grandmother’s ring. I don’t physically have the ring anymore, but I have all of the spirit of it. Her spirit is in me, it’s in my daughter, it’s in every woman who’s been mistreated and stood back up, it’s in every woman who has been hit, who has been choked, who has watched their family sit in the comfort of their house from their car that has become their temporary lodging. My grandma’s spirit is in every woman here. The Women Veterans Leadership Program encompasses the spirit of my grandmother’s ring—something I didn’t know if I’d ever feel again—and that is why I have felt so at home, so comforted, and so inspired. You are all exceptional. You have never been mediocre, so never live that way again.