I was raised in the small town of Gordon, Texas. I joined the Air Force when I was 17, and went to basic training two weeks after graduating from high school. I started out in law enforcement, but due to a shoulder injury in tech school, I had to cross-train into transportation.
My first duty station was Castle Air Force Base, California, nestled in the beautiful San Joaquin Valley. While at Castle, I served as the fleet analyst, and upon reenlistment, cross-trained into training management. I managed training for the 328th and 34th Bomb Squadrons. I loved seeing those big, beautiful, magnificent bombers take off and return.
As a training manager, I was not in a deployable position, but provided support at the base level. I lost friends in Desert Storm and did what I could to welcome others back home and provide support to the families left behind. While stationed at Castle, I started my little family with two children – a girl and a boy. This gave me such an appreciation and admiration for those who have had to leave their family behind.
When they closed Castle AFB, I moved on to Kirtland AFB, New Mexico, to be the base training manager, and later, became the training manager for Phillips/Air Force Research Laboratory – my final job in the Air Force. I continued to support our deployed troops, until my service ended due to injuries incurred in the military.
Rhonda’s basic training picture.
I am proud of my service and have such a deep appreciation for all those who have served. I served a total of 13 years and one day; the day I put on that uniform for the last time was one of the saddest days of my life. I am happy to have had the honor to serve. I loved my time in the military and in the greater military family.
My oldest daughter, Rachael, has carried on the tradition in a big way. She graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2010, and she and her husband – also an academy graduate, and a C130J pilot – are currently stationed at Little Rock AFB, Arkansas. He recently deployed to Afghanistan, and the couple expects their first child in June. Another daughter (my “bonus daughter,” because she is my stepdaughter) enlisted and went to basic right after graduation in 2012. She is stationed at McConnell AFB, Kansas. My son served in the Army Reserve, and my husband is retired Army. The youngest daughter, now 17, plans to carry on our Air Force representation after her graduation next year.
I never deployed, but my friends and family members did. I have heard their heartbreaking stories and have always wanted to find a special way to give back. I have been singing and playing the guitar for a while, but around two-and-a-half years ago, I started writing music. It has been such an amazing experience to share my thoughts and melodies with others.
I had been working on several ideas for a song in honor of our military, leaning toward the viewpoint of a woman – being that I am a female Veteran with two daughters serving, and another who will serve after she graduates next year. My husband’s cousin, who is on the Texas Commission for Women in the Military, reached out to me after she heard some of my songs; she asked if I had written anything about the military, and if I would send it to her to include in a presentation. My song didn’t make it in time, but only because it hadn’t fully evolved to what it is now.
The song is about the journey of a woman through her time in the military. The lyrics came to life as a story unfolded – based on my experiences, friends’ experiences, and stories told to me by others who had witnessed or heard about certain events. The original story began at around six pages long—difficult to cut down—but finally it was suitable for airplay.
The song tells the story of a young, small-town girl who is looking to the future, and trying to decide what to do with her life. She enlists in the military, just like her mom had done before her. She soon sees the reality of being in the military, “mission first”; but, regardless of the task, she takes pride in her job, standing beside the others—as they keep each other from harm while protecting the innocent, regardless of where they may be.
Rhonda in the recording studio.
The story then follows her journey home, where she has started a family and is just getting life back to normal, when she has to deploy again. I, like many others, have experienced the fearful thought of leaving my children behind and planning for who would take care of them—especially when both parents are serving.
During this second tour, she is injured by an improvised explosive device, and wakes up with no memory of the event. I addressed it this way, because of the many traumatic brain injuries experienced by Veterans. These injuries are often invisible, and the Department of Veterans Affairs is trying hard to handle large numbers of them—”numbers ranging from 50,000 (Department of Defense) to 115,000 (the Pentagon), while the Brain Injury Association of America estimates the number at 360,000; and the RAND Corporation has suggested it could be as high as 400,000.”
Not all of these are women, of course, but women do seem to experience a different trauma than their male counterparts.
The girl tries to cope with her injuries and knows that eventually things will work out, although she struggles with the demons of war in her dreams, and even in daily life. Many women suffer from more severe forms of post-traumatic stress disorder, especially those directly involved in “kills.” It is hard to determine the exact numbers affected, due to the stigma associated with complaining or mentioning their symptoms.
So many women have fought to show they can handle themselves, trying to counter the “weaker sex” stereotype. But they say nothing, because they fear that to admit something is wrong could cause a reaction like: “See, she can’t handle it.” Young women who may have suffered from some sort of trauma before going into the military – who saw their service as an escape from that trauma – might experience a more severe form of PTSD later on, from their experiences in combat situations.
My hope is that when you listen to the song, you see the story in the lyrics and understand that our women who serve, and who have served, have encountered some of the same struggles as their male counterparts; they need the same level of support.
May God bless and protect our troops.
Rhonda McCullough is a singer/songwriter and musician living in Weatherford, Texas, an Air Force Veteran, and the mother of two daughters currently serving.
Listen to “Freedom Fighter” here or download a large version of the song here. Freedom Fighter is available as a single or as part of the Just Say Rhonda cd currently available through most online merchants such as iTunes, Amazon.com and Google Play Music. It is also available streaming through iheartradio, spotify and more. You can also visit Rhonda on Facebook.