Retired Navy Master Chief reflects on her 21 years of service
The seeds of Candy Robertson's 21-year career in the Navy were sown one day in 1997 in Yucca Valley, California. A year out of high school, she was attending community college and waitressing at the Sizzler.
"One day I looked up and saw all the same people from high school and knew I needed to do something with my life," Candy says. "That night I saw a commercial for the Navy."
The next day she called a recruiter and accepted a position in the Seaman Apprenticeship Program. Like her father before her, she would embark on a career in the military - a career that would include survival training with the Navy Seals, a combat tour in Iraq and balancing military life with being a wife and mother.
Another challenge she would face was making the often-difficult transition from military to civilian life. Her father had retired from the Marines in 1994 and struggled with that transition, ultimately dying by suicide in 2002. At the time of his death, Candy was a Petty Officer Second Class, or E5, and had taken only limited college classes to prepare for life after the military.
"So when that happened," she says, "I made a pact with myself basically that I was going to make sure I was ready for what was going to happen if I stayed, if I didn't stay, if I got out."
Candy would rise to the rank of Chief Petty Officer, or E7, in only seven years and would get to work with the Navy Seals early in her career - both accomplishments that caused friction with her counterparts.
To work with the Seals, she had to complete Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) training. Of the 55 service members in her class, she was one of only two women and the senior-ranking enlisted member.
"You're thrust into a 'guys guys' community. So you have to figure out how to be one of the guys essentially. And adapt and overcome in that type of environment."
She would overcome. Graduating from survival training was the most memorable moment of her military career. "It was the best and worst training I have ever had the pleasure of being a part of. It saved my life a few times when I was in Iraq."
Candy began working with SEAL Team 7 the next year in Iraq as part of the Iraqi Women's Engagement Team, which would collect intelligence while providing humanitarian assistance. Many factions in Iraq openly disapproved of women in uniform.
"I was able to overcome this adversity by being persistent with our presence - persistent with our goals and showing the community that we were not going to stand down even with their threats," she says. "Our team was able to assist in catching many high-value targets and also providing the women in the community an outlet for their concerns and relay that to their elders."
In Iraq, Candy says there were things she didn't think about until years later. "There was a lot of stuff I saw, there was a lot of stuff I did that mentally, you know, when I go back and think about it, kind of breaks you down a bit."
Balancing work and family in the military
Candy gave a birth to her son eight years ago. She would essentially miss the first four years of his life on deployment.
"He didn't know who I was when I came home," she says. "When I think about it, that was probably harder than going to SERE and all that other stuff just because, you know, that's your kid."
The mental aspect of taking care of a family became more difficult as she advanced in rank, and she found it difficult to ask for time off for family matters. Then she came home early from a deployment and discovered her husband was being unfaithful.
"Probably one of the most humbling moments in my career just because you're one of two E-9s in your command and you have to call your captain because you have a personal problem," she says. "He was so understanding that he actually was my guest speaker at my retirement."
Candy went to shore duty, got divorced and moved from California to Virginia. Yet while work-family life balance with her son was better, she ultimately decided to retire.
The transition to retirement was smoother than most, but not without struggle. "Being mentally prepared for the retirement has been the most difficult. And figuring out where I fit in. I never understood what my dad went through until I went through it."
Candy would earn three college degrees and a human resource specialist certification while in the Navy. She also took retirement transition programs though the Navy and VA and connected with a representative from Disabled American Veterans (DAV).
"She was a godsend. She helped me figure out everything I needed to do, how to do the paperwork, what I needed to write, what I needed to say based on my medical history and everything like that."
Her retirement ceremony took place the morning of Feb. 1, 2019; that night she married fellow Navy retiree Jason Robertson. "We felt it was a fantastic way to celebrate both occasions. Saying goodbye to one adventure and moving forward into another."
They moved to Davison, Michigan in 2019 to be near family. Candy didn't start work right away but took time to adjust to her new life. As a Master Chief she had been responsible for 350 sailors.
"All of a sudden your world has shrunk to this house with two dogs, a husband and a kid and you're like, okay, what do I do with myself? You've spent over 20 years of your life doing something and putting a uniform on every day and it's just weird."
Finding the right fit
Back in the workforce, Candy struggled for about a year to find a position she was passionate about. That changed in February 2020, when she was recruited to be a human resource supervisor at MAXIMUS, a business services company in Flint.
"I absolutely love my job. There is a real camaraderie here and they are veteran-friendly. It took a while to find the right fit after my time in the service and I'm happy to say I have found it."
Being a veteran means carrying on the legacy of her dad and family. When Candy was putting together her retirement sea chest, she realized that she and her father had each served for exactly 21 and a half years. "I know that he was very, very proud of me."
She also views herself as a role model for her son. "Me being a female veteran, I think, shows my son that women can do stuff just as much as guys can do. Maybe we're different, but we can do it just as much as they can."
Candy enjoys talking to other female veterans and helping steer them to the benefits and services they need. "I hope this program (She is A Veteran) helps more women realize that they can go and ask for that help."
She recommends seeing what kinds of services your local VA has to offer and connecting with veteran groups and organizations.
Do you see yourself or your military experiences in Candy? Reach out to other women of the military and encourage them through your story to get a benefits checkup or connect with other veteran service organizations or women's groups.