Navy veteran makes triumphant return to civilian life

Double-alumna Roya Gordon is a former intelligence specialist for the U.S. Navy. This month she starts a full-time job as a critical infrastructure security analyst at Idaho National Laboratory. In commemoration of Veterans Day, and to honor all who have served our country, FIU News shares Gordon’s reflections on the challenges of reintegrating into society. (Photos by Tim Long)

By Roya Gordon ’14, MA ’16

I was told that my country needed me. I heard the call and reported without question. I did what many were not willing to do. My name is Roya Gordon, and I am a U.S. Navy veteran. I joined the Navy on Sept. 26, 2005. That day changed my life and is still influencing my decisions today.

As a sailor, I traveled the world: Guam, Singapore, Australia, Bahrain. I became a global citizen. I rode in helicopters over the Arabian Gulf, adventured on Australian war ships, interacted with Indonesian military forces and slayed a few White Walkers along the way (or at least felt like I did). I lived many eternities within those few years.

As much as I enjoyed my military experience, I wanted to see what was beyond those deep blue waters. So I decided to walk the plank.

29599190841_ba084948f4_kThe civilian world was always painted in gloom by those inside of the military, as if entering the realm of the unknown was somehow death row: death of your career, death of your happiness, death of life as you know it. “You’re going to want to come back in,” I was told as I hung up my uniform. “It isn’t any better out there. You’re safer in here.”

There was a moment, a split second, when I considered reenlisting, but curiosity trumped caution. On Nov. 25, 2011, after six years of service, I was honorably discharged. I got out! No more waking up at reveille, uniform inspections, command physical training. I was free! I awaited the celebratory applause, but instead I was met with silence.

I am not sure what I expected, whether it was a congratulatory party, a red carpet, a marching band, flying doves, confetti. Surely becoming a veteran warranted some type of celebration, right? I soon realized that was not the case and that I was a part of the real world now. I was on my own. So where did I go from there?

In January 2012 I enrolled in school. The VA was paying for it, so why not? It would give me time to figure things out, and what better way to figure things out than to get smarter while doing it? Just a few credits shy of an AA degree, I attended Broward College for a semester and then transferred to FIU.

The period of 2012 to 2016 was life defining or, more appropriately, life re-defining. On the surface I was excelling. I was a founding member and the secretary of FIU’s chapter of the national Student Veterans of America and represented our group at the 2015 SVA National Conference in Dallas. As a student, I participated in two intelligence and security conferences as I worked toward earning a BA in international relations. After graduation, I immediately turned around and enrolled in the Professional Masters in Global Affairs program, from which I earlier this year received my advanced degree. Go Panthers!

While I appeared to be really good at this civilian thing, inside I underwent an identity crisis. I was no longer the mighty Petty Officer Gordon whose authority no seaman would dare question or challenge. I was now Roya, caught somewhere between my past and my future. Used to military precision, I was always on time for everything, 15 minutes early to be exact. I spoke in coded military jargon, fluent in the dialect of acronyms, a habit that frequently had my audience tuning out. I often found myself bored; I could only read and study for exams so much. I was excelling academically, but something was missing. I missed the action. The call. The mission.

One day I was approached to join The Mission Continues. The organization helps returning vets transition back into their communities. Acknowledging the high suicide rate among veterans, as well as with mental health issues such as post traumatic stress disorder and depression, the organization has set a goal to help veterans regain purpose in their lives by engaging them in community service. I became a fellow by volunteering at a nonprofit of my choosing for six months, after which I was made a lifetime member of TMC.

I have since been a part of service projects that included mentoring youth, building gardens at elementary schools, painting murals and cleaning up polluted lakes and forests. In September, on the fifteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I joined about 50 other veterans and supporters—many of them FIU students and alumni—for a service project sponsored by the National Parks Conservation Association at Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, 70 miles west of Key West. We learned about the significance of Fort Jefferson in history as we helped maintenance workers beautify the grounds.

Nothing beats the feeling of accomplishment that comes from serving others, be it my country or my community. As a veteran, volunteering allows me to once again heed a call and report without question.

“Where do I go from here? I go where the mission leads me. My name is Roya Gordon and I am a proud military veteran, proud FIU alumna and proud fellow of The Mission Continues!