Why Andrew Yang: Gigi's Story
Updated: Nov 12, 2019
“You don’t look disabled,” is the most common statement towards me next to “what’s wrong with you?” Unlike all my friends and family who are Veterans, I never saw combat. I never deployed. I’m not missing any limbs, but I can no longer speak.
My story began when I joined the Army as a 21-year old wife and mother of one in January of 2001. Fort Hood, Texas was my first duty station at 57th Signal Battalion. In December, while transporting new soldiers, I was hit by another vehicle and flipped off a main highway nearly landing in a Chili’s dining area. That was the first of a series of TBI events that would shape the rest of my life. Hold on, because this is going to get personal.
Thirty percent of women in the service experience domestic violence, assault, or intimate partner abuse according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and that number only reflects incidents that are reported. I am part of the reported statistic. My spouse at the time was a civilian, and by January of 2002 I was pregnant with my second son of the marriage. In March of 2002, that spouse put me in the hospital. Without going into too much detail, the assault my oldest son and I experienced nearly cost the life of my unborn son. My unit at the time sprung into action and initiated what is called a Compassionate Reassignment while police were still looking to arrest my spouse. Realizing the threat to my life, my entire platoon took it upon themselves to put my son and I in temporary quarters on base and pack up my home for me. Within a week, I had orders and was on my way to another duty station at Fort Huachuca, Arizona.
Domestic violence interferes with your life in ways that I cannot truly articulate in writing. Having now had two TBI events on my record was terrifying in terms of how it would affect my career. Arriving at my new duty station on bed rest, with compassionate reassignment orders, meant having to explain the situation to every person in my chain of command. This was because orders simply stated “threat to life” as the reason for reassignment. My new home with 40th Signal Battalion gave me an opportunity to regroup. The assault made my pregnancy difficult, and the stress of managing the associated legal issues sent me into preterm labor repeatedly. Eventually, my second son was born at the end of September in 2002. It was a few weeks after his due date due to the level of anti-labor medications that I had been given to prevent having him prematurely. In January of 2003, the state of Texas had apprehended and arrested my spouse and I attended a closed trial while remaining in judges’ chambers. It was then that I was granted a divorce.
In February of 2003, I received orders to deploy with my unit and was told to waive my rights to remain with my new baby for the first 6 months of his life. I complied and transitioned from breast feeding within days. During preparation for deployment, I was sent for medical clearing. This process includes getting records stamped and completing a series of vaccines. The Military was pioneering a new type of vaccine that included multiple shots in one. It was supposed to be efficient. Soldiers are not given the option for informed medical consent, but we were told that we may feel some flu-like symptoms that were not serious. Several soldiers got quite ill but were fine within about 48 hours.
Some may remember the older days, when records and deployment processes were done on paper. There was also a change of command taking place, which as always, led to a great deal of administrative mistakes. One of those mistakes was losing or misplacing records. On a Monday, I got my shots and cleared for deployment. That night, my clearance packet was lost with cases of others. Those of us in the mix had to redo everything the very next day. A deployment packet included not just medical – but also financial readiness, and family planning to ensure you had no legal or other issues that would interfere during your deployment. On Tuesday I got my shots again. Wednesday morning, I had developed a fever and went on about my day with confidence in the fact that I would be fine. By Thursday, everyone who had not left yet was transferred to 11th Signal Brigade S1 where again: they could not locate a pallet of deployment packets that were sent from Battalion. The group was down to about 20 of us at this point, and we went through it again. Finance, family care plan, legal all cleared for the third time in a row. This time around, we were told to keep a copy (although a copy would not be officially acceptable it would be proof the originals were submitted). I then lined up and got my shots for the third time that week. Within hours, I was hospitalized with renal failure. The last of my unit deployed without me, and I was left behind on rear detachment with 11th Signal Brigade.
Recovery to regular duty took over four months. I filled that time in many different jobs, but also with over 340 hours of community service in partnership with JAG and MWR assisting the non-English speaking wives and family members of deployed soldiers. By the time I was fit for duty, my unit was returning from its first rotation in Iraq. Those who came back, while still friends of mine today, had shared an experience that I would never have. Not that anyone longs to be deployed, but the comradery that accompanies deploying together has an unspoken bond that transcends anything anyone could try to replicate stateside. I have always felt wholly inadequate, helpless, and angry for not being there with my team.
Fast forward to June and August of 2003, where I had my third and fourth TBI events during field training and change of command inventories. Being the smallest person in my platoon meant being the one that got tossed up on top of satcom trucks or stuffed into tight spots to reach for equipment. It also meant being prone to getting hit by falling satellite equipment. In those days, if you were talking and seemed functional, or if a CT scan or ex-ray did not show signs of hemorrhaging, you were put back on regular duty and there was never any follow up. That September, during a seizure, I drove my car into the gate at the north entrance of Fort Huachuca. I was never seen by a neurologist. I remained on active duty.
Between October of 2003 and March of 2004, I was hospitalized for renal failure another three times and was told that severe kidney damage and renal failure was going to be my new normal. I was also told that “head injuries can sometimes cause seizures, but sometimes they are isolated.” I went on about my life and made it to the promotion board in September of 2004 after re-enlisting and being promoted to Corporal, my family was ready to help with my sons so that I could attend PLDC and pin Sergeant. By October of 2004, I was told I would be medically discharged.
There was nothing I could do. Again, I felt trapped and helpless. What could I do?
To put this into perspective, I need to highlight something important. I come from a Military family. Not just any Military family – but one so deeply rooted in Military life that it goes back generations. My maternal grandfather and his father served. My father dedicated 25 years of his life at first as a medic, and then as Signal Corps in the newly emerging sat com MOS’s. He was an award-winning marksman, Airborne, and served in Gulf War as the Army pioneered the new technologies that led to our modern deployable communication systems. His brother, my uncle, served 32 years as active duty infantry whose multi-page DD-214 lists too many deployments, missions, commendations and awards to keep count. He was the one to pin my rank when I graduated training. My brother is retiring from 20 years of active duty Airforce with not only his master’s degree and over a dozen deployments and special missions under his belt – but nearly a lifetime of experience in intelligence and security operations and management.
I was born in an Army hospital. I will probably die in a VA hospital. My entire life, my family life, everything I have ever known or loved or wanted was intertwined in some major capacity to active duty Military service. Being medically discharged for permanent renal damage and TBI was the end to what I thought would be a lifelong career in my family’s honor. Instead, over the next decade and then some – I waited 12 years to be seen by a neurologist with the VA. Yes. Twelve years. The cracks and breaks in my spine still to this day have not been evaluated by a specialist. I have experienced a series of career opportunities that came and went, from managing a finance company in South Carolina to managing bioinformatics at the USGS Alaska Science Center in Anchorage. I acquired and lost homes across 8 states, experienced a brief period of homelessness, along with multiple hospitalizations a year and the eventual loss of ability to speak – all while raising my two sons alone, without financial support of any means. I nearly lost my oldest son in 2013 to a hit and run accident through it all. While I now own a small home, poverty has become a persistently looming presence I can not shake. There are limits to what one can do with no vehicle, no money, and no voice. I was raised to take care of myself, and as most Military folks can attest – asking for help is not something we do. I have never asked anyone for anything, and I never will. There is always a way to solve problems, it is just a matter of patience and perseverance.
There is one – very sensitive - topic to touch on before I bring this to a close.
It does not always come from depression. It is not always something that happens as a result of mental illness. I am not suicidal. But, after seeing the loss of many of my friends, it is important to explain. You see, there are times where one’s financial circumstances are so far gone to an extent that a soldier is left to analyze their life in the most practical way possible. This means looking at the mission (taking care of family) over considering any feelings or emotions attached. That usually leads to realizing that one’s life is of more value in death. This may be difficult to hear, but the common rule of thought is to see our lives as financial assets or liabilities. Let me explain...
In 2001, the September 11th attacks forced Military families across the nation to reevaluate their lives to accommodate deployment orders. For one young soldier named “Mitch,” it meant losing a 2-year long custody battle to see the daughter he missed the birth of during a year-long tour of duty in Korea that he had just returned stateside from. I found him hanging from the third-floor stairwell when I arrived at the barracks for CQ duty in Fort Hood, Texas. Mitch hung himself after getting orders to deploy. Not because he was afraid to leave. But, because he had also received court orders that removed his visitation rights as his daughter’s mother was being remarried, the new husband was asking to adopt his daughter as his own. He decided, that it was in his daughter’s best interest to have a trust set up with his life insurance money – than to go on to deploy and lose an opportunity to fight for a chance to have a relationship with his daughter. Everyone knew that he was facing some intense family matters.
Another soldier, who I will not name, committed suicide for a similar reason. After 16 years of service he re-enlisted indefinitely but was shortly after placed in a medical board for medical discharge. He was going to lose his ability to retire. As an infantry man, he saw no means of taking care of his wife and children after a medical discharge with no other skillsets. The pre-emptive VA claim he submitted before being discharged was denied, and he did not want to see his family hungry or need for anything for even a single day after leaving service – and he knew it was inevitable. He decided that his family would benefit from his life insurance more, if he died before discharge, than forcing them to live through the struggle of poverty he was going to have to face after leaving service.
These are only 2. Two people. Two families that were forever changed because soldiers thought they would be more financially viable in death than in life. I have seen myself this way many times, but with two sons and aging parents with debilitating illnesses – no amount of life insurance would be enough to fulfill the needs for a brain injured son and the other with unique education needs. My oldest is 22 now, and coaches BJJ while his younger brother is 17 and an undergrad IT major with Southern New Hampshire University. There is a lot of hope in our lives.
This is the first time that I tell parts of my story in any real or public way. There are many issues that I have become exceedingly passionate about over the years: Veterans health services (lack thereof); TBI and its lifelong effects; domestic violence; and Suicide. I felt it was necessary to understand my background with these issues, in order to understand my passion. While it may seem as though there are too many issues to unpack in all of this, the facts are that decades have gone by and nothing in our society has changed with any real effect towards limiting or reducing these issues – let alone addressing them to any real or improved degree. The only hope I have ever had to seeing any true or systemic capacity to change the system that perpetuates any of this to continue – is the impending 2020 election, and the candidacy of Andrew Yang for President and Commander in Chief.
How many soldiers would have chosen life over suicide if they had the support or financial floor of the Freedom Dividend to sustain themselves long enough to make it through a VA claims process (that can take years)? How many Military families could have avoided homelessness or crippling poverty while transitioning into civilian life? How many soldiers would have the ability to support themselves and go on to a new career path after being involuntarily medically severed from the only life they have ever known in the Military? How many domestic abuse victims would have had a chance to build a life for themselves, or find the resources needed to save themselves from injury, or save the lives of their children?
We could debate the what-ifs until dawn. But the fact remains, that there is only one candidate running for office whose policies can not only help prevent so much of what I personally experienced – but can help the recovery of so many who are still facing many similar circumstances. There is only one candidate whose policies can not only provide a floor to stand on, but also take the steps necessary to fix the systemic issues that lead to lack of basic medical care and transition services for soldiers and their families. And there is only ONE candidate running for office, whose message has resonated with me from day one, that uncompromisingly believes that PEOPLE have inherent value.
We are more than the sum of our economic value. The only candidate that has laid out an entire platform that sees people as a value and not a cost, is Andrew Yang.
In 2016, I did not vote. As an independent and right-leaning conservative, I never imagined voting for him as a democrat but that is what I will do in 2020. My vote, and the vote of my fellow Veterans, will be for the only candidate that sees the value in who we are as people, parents, mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, and caretakers of the future. I admit that I hesitated immensely in telling my story publicly, but I hope that it in some way helps others to see that there is hope. The system is broken, and there is an Asian man who loves math that can – and will – fix it.