“Pardon me, sir, I’m finished. May I give you back the form for my dog tags?” I handed the grizzled gray-haired vet behind the counter back the form he had given me. His woolen baseball cap said ARMY in gold letters and was adorned with various combat pins along the sides, hiding most of a jagged and salty sweat ring wrapping all the way around. He squinted at the completed form, then at me.
“Are these for your boyfriend, sweetie?” He started to press the tags.
I had been drawing portraits of military men since I was about four years old, I had been pulled towards making up military games during recess, to playing with GI Joe instead of Barbie, to wearing my father’s old Army jacket that he had hidden in the attic. However, it was the Hollywood blockbuster, Top Gun that actually sparked the flint to my kindling thoughts of the future, immediately igniting a wildfire inside of me, a burning desire toward my future. For the first time, I saw that work could be both an academic and physical challenge—a challenge in every way, each day. I had loved seeing how the military honored and encouraged the mind-body connection. I wanted that challenge. I wanted that training. I wanted to be part of that elite team. Flying planes while getting to learn and work, seemed like it would be the ultimate bonus. It was the air force that actually felt like a perfect fit on every level.
“Welp—there ya go, hon! Say—where’d that quote come from on the bottom, there?” Mr. Army Vet said as he handed me my shiny new dream.
POLO REO TATE
USAFA, 15 MAY, O-NEG
NO ONE CAN TAKE YOUR JOY
“Just…someone close to me said it when I was seven.” I replied.
I lost my older—and only—sister right at the start of second grade. And while in the throngs of unparalleled grief, a kind, beautiful soul knelt beside my lanky, child body and told me, “No one can take your joy.”
Even in the midst of my world having crumbled to the ground, I knew her words were magical. Deep, resonant truth often is. I reached for the tags.
“They for a Halloween costume or something, darlin’?” Mr. Army Vet pried.
“Um, no, not a costume. Thank you.” I took them from him gingerly, holding my dreams close to my heart and my cards close to my vest.
Mr. Army Vet grimaced. His eyes said, ‘a soldier? You??’ His mouth made it worse, “Naww, even if you could, why would you wanna go and do that?…It’s no place for little girls like you. Screws with a man’s head, seeing women in a place like that. You don’t wanna do that, do ya?”
I was looking at my dog tags, rolling them over in my hand. I put them around my neck, and felt the cold metal over my heart, the rubber silencers absorb their clank. Yesss. My goal. Declared in metal, protecting my heart.
I absolutely wanted to do that.
And I absolutely did.
With my junior dog tags in my hand, on my heart, I set my goals and dreams ahead of me, put one foot in front of the other, and walked through the emotional rubble of my childhood, through Mr. Army Vet’s acidic opinion about women in the military, towards my future. In high school, I went on to be recruited for three different collegiate sports at the Division I level, kept a near perfect GPA, National Honors society, and earned senatorial appointments to two of our nation’s finest service academies. The words “no one can take your joy” tattoo’d across my heart all the while.
After graduation, I chose to attend and play volleyball for the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) in Colorado Springs, Colorado. An opportunity of a lifetime. One that I had worked long and hard to achieve. One uniquely imbued with the most amazing training and opportunities, while surrounded by the cream of the crop. And, one that would write my ticket to the future of my dreams.
Until I let something take my joy.
And two others took my body.
The magical words, once tattoo’d across my heart, had been scuffed, scratched, scraped. They had had the blade of violence, sexual assault and betrayal run ragged over the precious muscle responsible for beating vital life blood through my body, my soul, my spirit. By the time I left, the magical words were barely visible under the layer of carnage that my first two years at USAFA had incited. It was either stay…or live.
I chose to live.
For the first time in my life, I had withdrawn from a challenge, and it was one that could have had a profound bearing on my future. I could not shake the awful feeling of powerlessness. It was as if my strength hand been insidiously leaking from some fissure in my soul.
Perhaps this was failure. Perhaps this was what it felt like. Failure. The very word, its connotation, twisted my insides into a knot. I had failed my school, my squadron, my team, my parents, my community, my sister, and myself. I felt a stifling grief for all that I was losing by choosing to leave.
I had always expected to have to pay for my failure in order to earn my happiness.
But there is no failure. And…happiness is and should always be free.
One of the greatest gifts that my parents ever gave me was the belief and knowledge that I could be anything that I wanted to be. So why was I choosing to be a victim? I am so much more than that. We are all so much more.
Hurt people hurt people.
I understood pain.
As broken and manipulative and maniacal as my two tormentors had been, their words, their horrible deeds, had come from a place of hurt. It didn’t excuse their actions, but it did help explain what had caused them.
I do not deserve to be hurt. I refuse to be held hostage by the actions of sick, damaged people. I have to unlock their chains and break free, because I deserve to be free.
I missed many opportunities to listen to the little voice in the back of my mind while I was at the Academy. And each time I ignored it for the sake of not rocking the boat, not getting others in trouble, not being disruptive or because I was afraid, it didn’t feel good. I let fear suffocate my inner voice, and I nearly died along with it. The loss, violence, deception, hurt and pain that I had endured in college persisted…until I tuned in and started listening to my own inner self.
I say this with no regret for having attended USAFA, for enduring what I endured, for surviving what I survived. Regret is wasted energy, anyway. For there is no going back.
If hurt people, hurt people, then let us be the ones to stand up now, to heal and help. If hurt people, hurt people, then healed people, heal people. Whole people, help people. And all of us have the choice to get quiet, to look inward, to evaluate where we are, how we feel, and work on feeling better. Doing what it takes to cleanse our battle wounds, to heal our hurt. To become strong, healthy and whole autonomous beings, responsible for our own happiness. And therefore, loving, reliable, and powerful teammates to those around us. Loving, reliable, and powerful protectors of those around us. Protectors of the space we create in which we can truly hear those around us. In which we can feel, can see—wholly—those around us. We as people, have the opportunity to have our voices heard. Now more than ever before. We have the opportunity to learn from our past, and deliberately write our future.
We all have our stories. We all have that which we absolutely want to do.
And we all have a say as to how we cast ourselves within our ever-evolving narrative of our own living memoirs. We don’t have to stay the victim chapter after life’s chapter. Let the inner voice within each of us, guide us toward better feeling people, places, things; inspirations, desires, passions. Let our main character grow and change beyond the bounds that loss, violence, pain has inevitably type-casted into the earlier chapters of autobiographies.
We don’t have to be victims anymore.
We can be the victors that our resilient inner beings have protected all this time. The inner selves that have resided in our hearts, waved red flags in warning, and whispered truths in the direction of our desires. The warriors inside each of us, carving their battle cries on the strongest, most magnificent muscle in our bodies; our hearts. No one can take our joy. No one can take our joy, without our consent. Let us not be victims anymore.
We are not victims.
We are victors.
Based on excerpts from the book Deep Dark Blue: A Memoir of Survival by Polo Tate. Published with permission from Feiwel & Friends/Macmillan Publishing Group, 2018.