By Michelle Bridges, VALOR Forge Publications Manager
It was on the 2019 All Women’s Utah Honor Flight where I first met Pam “PJ” Jennings. She was astonishing in her enthusiasm, energy and engagement as a guardian for her Vietnam veteran. Her spirit was contagious; few could keep up with her. Her experience as a nurse and her service as a special forces operator gave her an ability to relate to all she came in contact. We found her to be the rock that we all pivoted around on that once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Read or listen to her story.
Self Care: A Personal Story of Adversity and Trust
How Jennings describes herself: Wife. Mother. Grandmother. Great-grandmother. Nurse. Veteran. How others see her: Agile. Strong. Supportive. Observant. Calm. Loyal.
At age 4, Jennings’ life collapsed. Her mother died of leukemia, her stressed-out father put his children in an orphanage and her younger siblings were lost to adoption. Alone, Jennings ended up with an aunt and uncle where she was told she wouldn’t amount to much. As an “unruly” teen, she was shipped off to Utah to another aunt and uncle. Jennings began to question her sexuality. Low self-esteem had her asking if she could even succeed in life.
“I grew up protesting the Vietnam War before having a change of heart and trading my love beads for dog tags,” Jennings said. She joined the Women’s Army Corps to hopefully find some answers. She wanted to prove she could amount to something in spite of her past.
At 21, a coerced marriage and newborn complicated her life. The Army wanted to send her to Korea. Or, she could get out and join the Reserves. Reserves won. She started working in a medical clinic and soon began nursing school. Really wanting a military career in communications, Jennings’ training kept hitting roadblocks and dead-ends. Hearing about the Utah National Guard, she signed up.
A fellow soldier told her she was just the type of soldier they needed in Special Forces. She asked how many women, “None. You’d be the only one.” How would she fit in? “Don’t worry. You’ll do.” Within 30 days she had transferred. Then she was told she had to go to jump school. Some sergeant major was watching her do pushups and sit-ups and told her, “Girl, you will never make it.” Jennings thought she’d show him.
Jennings made it through Airborne School. “I made that sergeant major pin on my wings,” she said. “I wanted blood wings.” She wanted to show the guys, she was one of them. She told herself she could do it, but it was often an uphill battle. Restrictive policies for women in the military prevented her from becoming a medic even though she was a registered nurse. As the supply sergeant for the 19th SF, she pushed to meet the logistical demands of the group; often mixing in medical care. On missions away from Camp Williams, Jennings was often harassed about being the only female in the “boy’s club.” Overtime, she gained the confidence of her soldiers and was grateful they had her back. Achieving jumpmaster status, Jennings kicked many of them out of a perfectly good airplane.
Jennings was selected for the All-Guard Marathon Team and completed 12 marathons around the nation including the 1990 Goodwill Games. After 13 years with the Guard, she took a commission with the Army Nurse Corps to finish out her 25 years.
“At 50, I rode a bull in an amateur rodeo. I got stepped on and was hurting. My oldest granddaughter told me to make sure when I turned 60 to do something less painful. So I took up rock climbing. At 70, who knows? —PJ Jennings
Jennings was in turmoil over her marriage, two children and family responsibilities. “I was living the wrong life,” she said. She started mental health therapy to deal with her job, her life, her past, and learn how to be in healthy relationships. By 1989, she had had enough. She divorced and began living the LGBTQ life she wanted.
At the Veterans Affairs Hospital, Jennings found satisfaction working in pain management, palliative care, hospice and outpatient care including the LGBTQ Clinic referred to as the Gender Identity Veterans Experience (GIVE). When the VA started caring for females in 2000, Jennings encouraged women to seek help. “If they had a DD214, they were a veteran and entitled to health care,” she said. Listening to them talk about their experiences and sharing her own, went a long way to show women they were not alone.
Years of therapy showed Jennings the importance of self-care. Getting a horse and taking care of her was part of her therapy early on. She found mucking stalls, stacking hay and exercising horses calming. “I would say I was going to the Church of the Equine,” she said. “Because I could only go to the stables on Sunday.”
Jennings jokes how she found her thing: rock climbing. “When I was 50, I rode a bull in an amateur rodeo. I got stepped on and was hurting. My oldest granddaughter told me that when I turned 60 to do something less painful,” she said. “So I took up rock climbing. At 70, who knows?”
“It is important for me to make my experiences worthwhile,” Jennings said. “You get back what you put in.”
Michelle Bridges is the publications manager for VALOR Forge.
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