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Air Force veteran Sapphire Pates: Combat was ‘a unique, yet terrifying time’
As an aircraft loadmaster, Sapphire Pates took part in 68 combat flight missions from 2003 to 2005. The Air Force staff sergeant and her C-130 crew would transport U.S. service members and supplies in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan as rocket-propelled grenades exploded around them.
During one flight out of Baghdad, one of their four engines was knocked out by enemy fire, but the plane would make it safely to its destination in Kuwait. Another close call came in 2004, in Fallujah, when the U.S. aircraft on the ground in front of them was hit with a missile.
In the height of battle, the crew would fly 14-hour missions nearly every other day. Takeoffs and landings were particularly risky due to enemy fire.
“There were times when I was in awe of what I was actually doing,” says Pates, 54, of Dearborn. “I was doing things that no one back home had experienced. It was a unique, yet terrifying time in my life.”
Pates would enlist two different times in the Air Force, first as a teenager and then again in her 30s, logging 12 years of active-duty and reserve service. She would receive honorable discharges and earn military medals for serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. She is proud of her service and proud to identify as a veteran.
“I loved it,” Pates says of her time in the Air Force. “It wasn’t your typical job.”
‘Dedicated to being a good person’
Here’s a fact about the veteran population: Just like the civilian population, it’s all-encompassing. Just about every race, ethnicity, gender and religion are represented among the estimated 18 million former service members living in the United States and the more than 530,000 living in Michigan.
Sapphire Pates served her country proudly as a man. In 2018, about a decade after she got out of the Air Force for the second time, she transitioned proudly to a woman.
How does that personal decision affect her status or pride as a combat veteran? Not one bit.
“You know, people don't care as much as we make it seem like they do. I feel like we’re getting all spun up because of the media,” Pates says. “Overseas, in a war zone, nobody cares about your gender, your ethnicity or any of that. They just want to make it home alive.”
Pates knows she may not fit some people’s perceptions. She’s married to a woman. She’s a devout Christian. She has four grown children — three daughters and a son — who are all college graduates.
She describes herself as a clown who likes to joke around. She’s loyal. And she understands what it means to be dedicated.
“I’m dedicated to being a good friend, to being a good person,” she says. “To being someone who adds value to the world.”
Hoping to help others
The Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency’s “I Served. I Am a Veteran” campaign is telling the stories of veterans from all eras and backgrounds in hopes of inspiring other veterans to come forward and connect to the benefits and resources they earned for their service. Most veterans we talked to have connected to at least some of their earned benefits.
Pates hasn’t. Why?
When she got out the first time, she didn’t want to go to college and never took advantage of the GI Bill. She’s also never used a VA home loan or VA health care. Professionally, Pates says she’s been blessed with good jobs. She worked as a morning radio host and then a TV news producer before that media company filed for bankruptcy. She switched careers and is now a store manager for a retail vendor.
She knows some veterans aren’t sure where to turn for benefits. Others may feel like they don’t qualify.
“I remember thinking, I didn’t retire from the military, I’m not disabled, so I didn’t earn benefits,” Pates says.
She understands now that she does qualify for benefits and resources and that some benefits are transferable to dependents. “Now that I know that I’m qualified for benefits, I’m definitely going to apply for them,” she says. Pates is working with an accredited Veteran Service Officer from the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency to see about connecting to her earned benefits.
She encourages other veterans get connected to the benefits and resources they earned for their service.
“That’s what I’m hoping for, is to help other people,” Pates says. “I think a lot of people are in that gray area where it's like, ‘We don't know exactly what to do.’ Or life gets in the way and other things become more important and then you end up never applying for your benefits.”
Veterans of any age or era — or their dependents — may qualify for benefits and resources, such as VA health care, mental health services and education and employment assistance. The MVAA serves as the central coordinating point for Michigan veterans to get connected to their benefits. Contact us at 1-800-MICH-VET (1-800-642-4838) or visit our website at michigan.gov/mvaa.
If you're a veteran in crisis or concerned about one, contact the Veterans Crisis Line to receive free, confidential support and crisis intervention 24/7/365. Call 988 and press 1, text to 838255 or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net.