More than 15 years retired from military service, North Charleston resident Virginia White Jamison still feels a rush of emotions when she describes getting the call.
She remembers taking a patient from the cardiac pathology lab to post-cardiac care at Medical University Hospital, where her supervisor told her that her unit had phoned. An Air Force reservist with the Aero Medical Evacuation Unit, she knew that meant she needed to pack -- but little else.
Within hours she was on the ground in Panama for Operation Just Cause and, as she recalls, feeling vulnerable without the protection of a flak jacket or a helmet as she stabilized injured soldiers and loaded them for flight.
"The one thing I want people to understand is that as a reservist, I was on my civilian job in one hour and packing my bags the next hour and flying to an unknown situation with climate changes -- all of the things you go through in the run of a 48-hour period," she said. "Then you're coming home. We're debriefed, but you're going back to your civilian job, and you're taking all that baggage with you. I want that to be clearly identified."
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When a team of women from the University of South Carolina, which included Cathy Brookshire and Charlene Spearen, approached her about being part of "Always Coming Home," a documentary and poetry anthology project, she eagerly agreed. Jamison sat for an interview and submitted a poem about her five years of active-duty service and her 15 years in the Reserve, reflecting upon leaving behind a 9-year-old daughter and knowing her oldest daughter was off fighting, too, with the Army. Her poem:
It's been a while since Panama,
operation Just Cause, when I heard
the night's booming guns, fighting
all around, the urgency of this mission
I was called to do. It keeps coming back.
On Saturday, she plans to attend a workshop at the Center for Women in Charleston to expand upon that writing in a room full of other veterans and active-duty women in the military.
"The whole interviewing process, just being able to talk about it with people who understand, was cathartic," Jamison said. "A lot of military members do not get to talk about it, especially to somebody who's listening to you attentively and really wants to hear what you're saying."
The workshop spins off the documentary, which was supported with funding from the S.C. Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities and is currently being marketed.
Filmmaker Cathy Brookshire, a speech communication and rhetoric instructor at USC, said she hopes the project will expand eventually into a national archive of interviews.
The idea came to her, she said, after listening to a podcast about veterans and not hearing a single woman's voice.
She wanted this to be a place outside of the government, outside of the military, where women could tell their stories. Of the initial 31 interviews, four women talked about sexual abuse, Brookshire said.
Charlene Spearen, associate director of the S.C. Poetry Initiative at the university, leads the writing workshops and the end result: an anthology called "Ports of Authority." Her brother died of complications from hepatitis C he contracted in Vietnam, and her husband, sister-in-law and son-in-law also served in the military.
"I think South Carolina is a very unique place because it doesn't really matter where you travel, you're going to see someone in uniform," Spearen said. "They really do take their missions seriously. They're just asking for a thank you."
Or, as Jamison will attest, a chance to talk.