Not many high school kids know exactly what they want to do when they graduate but Jen Durfee, a Westerly native, was one of the few who did. At 17, when most high school girls are focused on prom and thinking about college, Jen had already signed up for the Army and was getting visits from her recruiter to make sure she kept her grades up in order to graduate.
“I actually wanted to go in the military my whole life, not sure why—something drew me to it. When I told my parents, they thought I would grow out of it but they were supportive because it was what I wanted to do,” she said, adding that at graduation she walked across the stage to get her high school diploma in June and went off to boot camp two months later. “I’m really glad I did.”
After boot camp in North Carolina she was stationed in Germany and shortly after the September 9/11 attacks, she did two 18 month deployments in Iraq. “It was very different there, growing up in westerly its close-knit and your sheltered but in a good way.” Jen said, adding that she was the youngest soldier in her platoon. “After 9/11 it was a lot more chaotic being overseas, a crazy time.”
She was part of the forward support battalion running food and supplies such as ammunition and anything the soldiers needed. Her unit would convoy supplies to the soldiers so they wouldn’t get displaced from their jobs.
“It was very dangerous seeing vehicle’s get blown up. Crazy experience.”
Mortar rounds going off all the time, rockets flying overhead, loud explosions, and helicopters and planes flying constantly all become her new norm.
Her time in Europe extended to five years and especially during the holidays Jen missed her family in Westerly but she had developed a special close-knit bond with her military family which helped combat the loneliness.
“Your around your military family 24/7 for 18 months going through traumatic events,” said Jen. “They are all you have to lean on,” she said.
She would travel around Europe with some of her unit to lighten the mood and take away sadness from being apart from her family.
Gender equality was non-existent on foreign soil and even within her own unit. During her deployment, she also was a prison guard in Baghdad and she didn’t always get treated the best. “
When I was in, women had to prove themselves a lot more. Men still feel women shouldn’t deploy,” Jen said. “I always felt I had to more than prove myself.”
After five years, Jen got out as an E4 specialist or corporal rank in 2008, just a short stint away from being a sergeant – she was mentally exhausted and ready to come home to Westerly.
However, just like many military men and women coming home, after all they have experienced it was not an easy transition back into civilian life for Jen and even though she didn’t see the warning signs, her family did.
“You are conditioned to be on extreme high alert and when you come back to the states it doesn’t go away,” Jen said. “The military teaches you how to be a soldier but doesn’t teach you how to be an adult financially or function as a civilian, I got out at 23 and had no idea how to manage money and pay bills.”
Jen spent a few years working in Norwich helping developmentally disabled individuals but realized she was not healed from her own issues and needed to get away to begin to find her place in life. She packed up her car and drove cross country to Texas where she stayed with an Army friend and started to get her life back on track. After a year she came home to her Westerly roots and got involved with the Veterans Association for resources and mental health support.
“Everyone was so helpful, I felt like I was back with my military family again,” says Jen. When you’re around other veterans your connected,” she said.
Through the VA, she became involved with vocational rehab and the Veterans Assemble electronics (VAe) education program helping service-disabled veterans, where she recently graduated the program and is now certified as an electronics technician. The VAe helped advocate with finding her a job and she has been happy working for the past month for a company in West Greenwich, RI repairing lottery and gaming equipment.
“I troubleshoot and repair gaming equipment for casinos, and we are sent equipment from all over the world, I love it,” she said.
Her advice to other young military personnel and veterans who are struggling; “you are gonna have some hard days but I promise you it’s a life-altering experience and good days and friends out way that,” Jen said. “The experiences shaped who I am and I wouldn’t change any experience I had in the military.”