Host, Stacy Pearsall smiles at Lisa Zunzanyika.

Episode 104 – Breaking the Stigma

Apr 12, 2024

Stacy Pearsall sits down for a candid conversation with Meggen Pearsall-Ditmore, Vanessa Shawver and Lisa Zunzanyika, three fellow veterans who were each the first women in their fields, on episode 104 – Glass Ceiling. A few topics of conversation relayed around relationships, children, and the stigma around women in the military. 


Q: Stacy to Meggen, Vanessa, and Lisa 


“But for, you know, for a long time, I was like, "Well, crap, I don't want to have anybody know that I'm in a relationship with another military member because then I'm living up to this sort of stereotype and the stigma about women in the military, and that's one of them. You do meet an airman that you kind of like and you're kind of digging him. You're kind of having this relationship on the fly. It's new. What happens next?” 


A: Meggen 


“I got pregnant. Yeah. I got pregnant. And I ended up finding out because the very first thing the military wants to do is yank your wisdom teeth. I had absolutely no clue. You know, I had all these appointments scheduled and this and that. I went in to have my wisdom teeth yanked. Not the top of my priority list. I go in and they will pregnancy test any female of childbearing age before giving them anesthesia. And they came back, and they said, "Did you know you're pregnant?" And I said, "Say what, now?" "No, that can't happen. I'm taking precautions. I'm on birth control. That's just not a possibility." "Well, you're pregnant." So, down they marched me to the medical, to schedule my first OB appointment. And all I'm thinking in my head is, "I have just failed. I am doing everything that those guys had told me. I'm living up to what their expectation of me was." I felt like a big failure. I was very disappointed in myself. It wasn't my intention to get pregnant. I didn't do it on purpose. Stuff just happens. So, I spent weeks and weeks going behind the scenes, trying to find out how we could coparent and not be married. But the military makes it damn near impossible to be a single woman raising a child. I asked if I could get base housing. They said, "Sure, we'll give you base housing. You have to sign over your child. And, if we find out that your boyfriend's living there with you, you're going to permanently lose base housing." So then we were like, "Okay, well, let's see if we can get a cost of living allowance, a COLA raise, and we'll go live off-base." We're in Alaska. It's very expensive. The only thing we, as airmen, could afford to live in was a like open cabin with no indoor plumbing or a studio apartment in North Pole, Alaska, that had mold so bad that I wouldn't, you know, wish my worst enemy to live there. And I was just defeated. I felt defeated. And I was like, "I have no clue what the solution is." I look back at myself -- you know, with age comes wisdom -- and I'm like, you know, that pregnancy that I got married for, I lost in less than a month. I was 16 weeks pregnant. And I feel, in my heart and my gut, that it was all of the stress and anxiety I was putting myself through, as why I lost that pregnancy. And I just wish that I could go back and tell myself, "It's okay. Everything's going to be okay." We celebrate our 24th wedding anniversary this summer.” 


A: Vanessa 


“Well, for me, I was kind of that check the list, like you, of things I was never going to do. Coming out of college, first of all, I was never going to get married, and I blew that one up just right out. And then and I said, "Okay, I'm married, but I'm never having kids." I ended up having the kids, which, two. And then I said, "Alright, I have kids. I'm never driving a minivan." Also blew that one. So, what I've learned is never say never. But I got married to a friend, essentially, out of college and decided to have kids. He knew that I'd said I didn't want any but, for me, the big game-changer was when I went to Haiti in 1999 and I got sent there as a secretary to the Joint Staff. And I had never seen, at that point in my life, such widespread poverty. And I watched a few things happen, one of which really sticks in my mind. We used to have these humanitarian hospitals that they would set up and we had a compound. It was a walled compound. They had Marine guards outside and they had -- at that time, it was a Navy hospital that would let people in to help them. And I'm watching all these people and I'm up on the roof because I'm with the commander. And you can see this line of people waiting to get in. And then you see the people that are leaving and some of them are given medicines for whatever ailment their family member had. And they would go out the gate and there was like -- like a makeshift market, so that you could get the medicines and then you could go out and you could sell it. If you have a child that's sick with -- name the illness that they had, which was many, it might kill them in a year, maybe two. If they don't have food...they won't make it that long. And that, to me -- I had not grown up in what I had seen as a healthy marriage and childrearing, to me, I just didn't have good enough experiences in my background to think that I could do that. But I watched this and I thought, "That's powerful, the love of the family, and I want that. I don't know what that's like, but it looks like it's really powerful." I was on active duty for about ten years and then, when my daughter was born -- She was born September 5, 2001. The towers had fallen and she was six days old. I was home with a newborn, recovering from my second C-section, had a young son as well and I looked around and said, "I respect women that have and continue to leave their children," but it was not going to be me. I just knew that I couldn't leave my children. So, I decided I wanted to leave active duty. But rolling in the reserves was, I think, the best thing I could have done for them because my kids don't -- and, in fact, they don't even -- they think that "Mom is a helicopter pilot" is like a fun bedtime story that they've heard. They were never around for any of that. They saw me come and go in an Air Force uniform towards the end of my career, but we never had to travel like I did. So, they don't quite understand any of that, which I'm, frankly, grateful for. Not that I think there was a lot of benefit to being a military brat. I just know I really appreciate having given my kids that security.” 


Q: Stacy to Meggen, Vanessa, and Lisa 


“If we hold ourselves to this almost -- It's a hard -- It's a hard level to maintain, that level of excellence we expect from ourselves. But then we project that onto other women, right? And when they're failing, if they give an inch, "The [bleep], You better get your [bleep] back in line." But what happens is, when -- when we get the guys involved and the guys are seeing it, now suddenly what's happening is, the guys are like, "Man, did you see so-and-so?" And we're like, "Oh, yeah…”  And so suddenly we're turning on ourselves.” 


A: Vanessa 


“Well, you have to distance yourself, because, yeah, if you don't distance yourself from that, then you become her. It's like, "Oh, so you support this lower standard. Well, then we don't support you anymore." And so you don't want that to turn on you. So absolutely. I've seen that. I know that there was another female that came into the unit after I was there, and we had the same last name. She would -- I'm gonna put this politely as I can -- struggled with the height/weight. She also, weirdly enough, was married to a civilian, so she was also kind of a little outcast. But she went and flew and had a hard landing and pushed the tail wheel up into the boom of the aircraft. A little mishap. So now it has a lieutenant, same last name as me, showing up on the reports. And I was like, "Not me," because all the jokes became, "Well, she's so heavy that they landed." You know? And I -- Instead of ever trying to protect her, I was just like, "You have the same name. You have a civilian husband. I do not want to be anywhere near you because I do not want us to get confused because I can already hear the murmur. And your credibility's kind of shot, and I'm still trying to hold on to mine." 


Q: Stacy to Meggen, Vanessa, and Lisa 


“…I know we talk a lot about toxic masculinity or all the other things that we found were hurdles -- It's part of the patriarchal environment that we volunteered to go into. And hopefully we can change that and change the balance and make it more of a human experience and not just a man or a woman experience. And I no longer, and you no longer, need to be the female combat photojournalist. And you don't have to be the first female helicopter pilot, or the first female A-10 crew chief. You can just be airmen, soldiers. Am I right?” 


A: Lisa 


“Absolutely I’d like to think that... more often than not, there are these great experiences in people's military careers. I've been fortunate. I don't have any big, huge highlights of, "Oh, well, this happened to me," and blah, blah, blah. But I've had some defining moments that allowed me to make some choices, some of which I still stand by and some of which I'm like, "Uhh..." But I... ...I struggled coming here -- "How do I say my story? What do I say?" -- because of the fact that I didn't have these terrible stories to share. But I think it's important that we show that that's not -- No one experiences every experience. Right? And that it is a broad spectrum. And I have, to your point, so many people who have just stood in the gap for me and allowed me to stand on their shoulders. So I'm so grateful that you brought this up to give the opportunity to say thank you to all those people, you know. And it wasn't -- For me, it was men and women. But, you know, we're predominantly male, so hats off because I had more of them than the detractors.” 


A: Vanessa 


“I think it's important to note that, you know, people a lot of times will ask if they do get the wind of, "Oh, you're the first female," and they look for all these horror stories because all you hear right now is the sexual harassment and assaults in the military and how they're on the rise. And I don't diminish that at all. But it always gets spun that way. And the way that I like to tell it is, I had a really good experience. Did some threads of things happen? Sure. But I think there's a huge shout-out to the large majority of men in the unit who were accepting and supported and mentored and that are still out there supporting, and that maybe it's not that we need less of the bad stuff -- We need more of those good people. because I was given a hand up by more than one individual that were male. And I found those people and clung to those people. And I still keep in touch with those people because -- And I say "people" because it's not just men. They were good people. And there was a woman, you know, that mentored me, as well. In fact, my -- my daughter's named after her. So, you know, there are people that -- that make a huge difference. So when, when we say you're the first of anything, okay, but who was there to support you? Can we talk about that?”