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Celebrating Kahnawake’s female veterans’ service

In 2019, Kahnawake’s Legion is celebrating the community’s female veterans, and The Eastern Door will profile women who served throughout the year. For International Women’s Day, we look at U.S. Marines Tara Jacobs and Randi Diabo Jaramillo. (Courtesy Tara Jacobs, Randi Diabo Jaramillo)

From a shy student at Survival to a success story

Veteran Randi Diabo Jaramillo credits her time serving in the United States Marine Corps with pushing her beyond what she thought possible as a shy high schooler at Kahnawake Survival School.

She joined the Marines after graduating in 2004, then completed an electrical engineering degree at the University of Vermont, did an internship at IBM, and now works in Maryland at Northrop Grumman, and incredibly difficult global security company to find work with.

“I grew up on the rez, went to school in Kahnawake for elementary and high school, and I ended up here now all because I served, and because I took advantage of what was available after that,” she said.

Randi Diabo Jaramillo’s service led to college and then a successful career, which she feels was all due to her post-high school decision. (Courtesy Randi Diabo Jaramillo)

Diabo is the daughter of Walter Diabo and Leigh-Ann McComber, and the second female veteran The Eastern Door is profiling as the local Legion prepares to honour the community’s women who have served later this year.

Diabo reported to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina on Halloween 2004, and did two tours in Iraq after completing her training in January 2005.

“I had always been one of those, who wanted to get away from home and do something different and interesting,” she said. “For me, it was something totally different from what people expected because I was always a nerd in high school. I was always the one who wanted good grades and more advanced math and science levels.”

The decision may have seemed out of the blue for some, but not for Diabo.

“I just kind of wanted to get out of my comfort zone, go away for a while, and see some things I normally wouldn’t see,” said Diabo. “I didn’t really want to just stick around Kahnawake. Figured I might just be there for the rest of my life.”

In Iraq, she worked as a postal clerk, and did admin and clerical work, remaining primarily in the green zone out of combat.

She toyed with the idea of applying to become an officer and serve 20 years, but bilateral stress fractures during her last year of enlistment made her ineligible to enter right away.

“I didn’t heal up to par where they would medically clear me for re-enlistment, so I did my initial service term and decided to go the college route,” said Diabo.

Finishing her tour and being honourably discharged qualified her for the American G.I. Bill, which pays 100 per cent of students’ tuition with a healthy living allowance and book stipend.

“That was a huge thing for me, and I said there was no way I can let this slip away from me, so I jumped on that as soon as I got out,” she said.

She said her service played a huge part in getting the internship at IBM, where the hiring manager’s son was on active duty in the Marine Corps at the time, and noticed that Diabo was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement (NAM) medals.

“He understood what they were and what it took to get them,” she said. “I feel the hardest part of getting any job nowadays is getting the employer to recognize you or for you to stand out.

“For me, the service and those awards helped me to stand out and that’s how I got the phone call, the interview, and eventually got the internship.”

Her story also includes a bit of kismet romance, as she married fellow Kahnawake veteran Peter Jaramillo, who served in the US Army for six years.

“We were high school sweethearts, and then we split apart for about 11 years, and then met back up when I got out of college,” said Diabo. “He came to prom with me at KSS.”

The couple has a two-year-old daughter.

Diabo wants young women in the community to consider the options the military provides when thinking about their future. The challenge, for her, was part of the attraction.

“I wanted to take on a challenge that not many women were willing to take, and to show that I could get through it, and come out at the end,” said Diabo.

The challenge meant transforming a shy nerd, who sat in the back of the class and never raised her hand, into a confident adult ready to travel to the Middle East and learn skills she never would have had.

“You get put on the spot a lot, so you get used to that,” she said. “You get used to being the centre of the embarrassment and you’re no longer in a position where you can hide at the back.”

Diabo hopes her example will inspire others to take advantage of what’s offered in serving.

“There are so many benefits out there available to us, and I have to wonder how many people have actually taken advantage of them,” said Diabo.

“You can really turn your service time into a huge return on investment… Because of my service, I have really, really set myself up and I feel that so many people could be doing the same and have the ability and aptitude to apply themselves.”

From high school halls to Somalia’s war in two years

Tara Jacobs credits her service with the Marines with giving her the chance to get out of the community, and grow up in a hurry. (Courtesy Tara Jacobs)

Working through the final months of high school in 1991, Tara Jacobs didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do, but knew she didn’t want to go to college.

“I wasn’t ready or I did not want to go to college, so I figured I would join the Marines,” said Jacobs, who now works at the Kahnawake Peacekeeper station as a technician.

On February 11, 1992, Jacobs found herself at the Parris Island, South Carolina Marine Corps Recruit Depot ready to begin the tough three-month training program.

For Jacobs, the days leading up to February 11, 1992 were a constant blur of paperwork and activity for the 18-year-old new recruit that ended with a 2 a.m. wakeup call to begin training.

After that, boot camp began.

“It was everything: push-ups, running, drill,” said Jacobs. “You do drill for hours and hours on the parade deck… You’re running, you’re marching, you do swim qualifications, you do rifle, and hikes.”

Though tough, Jacobs embraced the drills and tough training regiment, and graduated on May 1, 1992.

She was then deployed to Somalia as part of Operation Restore Hope in the supply battalion where she got a first-hand experience in a country a long way from her home in Kahnawake.

“It was different,” she said. “There were times when we had to go from one end of Somalia to the other by convoy. You’re driving, and you look over and you see a kid that’s standing there with an AK47.”

Operation Restore Hope (also known as the Unified Task Force or UNITAF) was a US-led mission between December 5, 1992 and May 4, 1993 that was charged with aiding the African nation ripped apart by an on-going civil war. Jacobs was in Somalia for two months, and remained active for four years, including a stint in Iwakuni, Japan.

Being a female veteran from Kahnawake is important for Jacobs, who knows the numbers are lopsided between males and females who have served.

“It means a lot to me,” she said. “There’re not many that join. I know people have their gripes, ‘why would you go defend the country’ and that, but each person has their own view. I wanted to go. I wanted to better myself, (and I) enjoy travelling.”

The experience in the Marines gave Jacobs as many life skills as military ones. “I grew up. I learned to live on my own,” she said.

Post-military, Jacobs met Richard White and began a life together that involves two daughters and two grandchildren.

She said she’d be happy if one of her girls decided to join the military and looks back on her service with pride.

“For me, it was a great experience and the camaraderie is still there,” said Jacobs. “It’s nice to gather together and talk about old times. It’s (the Legion) a place to go. You see other veterans and you talk and have fun.”

Jacobs highlighted the military funerals the Legion organizes, as events that are particularly special aspects of the local organization.

“I want a funeral like that that whenever I pass away,” she said.

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