Meghan Shellington is sharing her story as part of MVAA's She is A Veteran campaign. See the accompanying video here.
As a military police officer in the late 2000s, Meghan Shellington took pride in enforcing the law at a U.S. Army base in Germany. Her fellow soldiers would become the "greatest family" she never knew she needed, she says, while serving overseas was an eye-opening experience that allowed her to immerse herself in other cultures and lifestyles.
But the Army would also bring dark times. Meghan, a Lansing-area native who enlisted during high school, says she was sexually assaulted by a soldier in her unit. She experienced sexual harassment almost daily, was forced to hide a pregnancy from her superiors and repeatedly fought to be treated as an equal.
"Being a female serving, I've been a giant inconvenience the entire time," says Meghan, now 30. "And they made sure to let you know that you were an inconvenience."
Transitioning back into civilian life in 2013 brought its own difficulties. Meghan faced discrimination when she identified as a veteran and couldn't find a good, full-time job as she and her then-husband struggled to provide for their children.
Today, however, the mother of four is financially stable - working as a federal technician for the Michigan National Guard - and helps her fellow veterans meet their basic needs through her role with the Lansing Area Veterans Coalition.
"I finally have reached a phase in my life where I am proud to be a veteran," Meghan says. "And it doesn't matter what people think they know about me."
A GIANT INCONVENIENCE
Growing up in tiny Sunfield, about 25 miles west of Lansing, Meghan joined the Army at 17 to see the world, serve her country and get a leg up on her educational and career goals. She attended basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina between her junior and senior year of high school and did her advanced MP training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri after graduating in 2009.
She says her first duty station in Ansbach, Germany, was an amazing experience, opening her perspective to the diversity of the world. As an MP, she was also able to train and patrol with German police (Polizei) and see how other countries police their communities.
The MP Corps was predominantly male, and the job challenged her physically, mentally and emotionally. As a law-enforcement officer, Meghan would handle everything from traffic accidents to domestic disputes to child abuse cases. But she says she fought every day to be taken seriously and frequently experienced discrimination and sexual harassment.
Many soldiers believed women did not belong in the service or that they should be serving in cooking, supply or human resource roles. If she needed help with a difficult task or something she hadn't been trained on, she says her male counterparts would say it was because she was a woman. And when she did something well, they would accuse her of having an easier task or somehow having an upper hand.
After reporting five soldiers in the unit for drug use, Meghan says she became the target of a staff sergeant. He retaliated against her by taking away her leave, not allowing her to take a day off and forcing her to work extra hours, she says.
"Whenever a superior praised me for my hard work and dedication," Meghan says, "he made sure to accuse me of having sexual relations with that person, male or female, in front of several other soldiers and superiors."
'EVEN MORE USELESS'
Meghan married a soldier, Brandon, in July 2010. When she got pregnant, she hid it from her superiors, fearing further retaliation and mistreatment. She ultimately miscarried that baby and felt alone because she couldn't tell anyone. Shortly after, she learned she was pregnant again. For the safety and protection of her unborn child, she decided to tell her superiors.
Despite written guidelines from military doctors allowing her to continue doing most of her duties, Meghan says her superiors attempted to hinder her from performing her job.
"The adversity was escalated when I became a mother," she says. "In the eyes of many of my comrades and superiors, when I became pregnant, I became even more useless."
While pregnant, Meghan decided to separate from the Army to care for her daughter, Makenna, once she was born. Brandon had two years remaining on his commitment, and the family would remain in Germany during that time.
Meghan started taking courses from the University of Maryland, doing a mix of online and in-person classes offered on base. She also became pregnant with twins, a girl named Riann and a boy named Reese.
STRUGGLING BACK HOME
In early 2013, Meghan and Brandon came back to the United States with their three children. Although the Army Transition Assistance Program (TAP) existed at the time, it wasn't mandatory as it is now, and they found little help. For months before the move, both Meghan and Brandon applied for numerous jobs but when they received calls to interview, she says employers were not willing to do an interview over the phone, via video chat or wait until they were back home.
Once back in Michigan, Meghan says she faced discrimination when she identified as a veteran, even more so than Brandon, losing out on a dozen or so job opportunities. Many employers had the misconception that all veterans did was run around and yell at each other.
"I think that you need to ignore the stereotypes," Meghan says. "Like any other prospective employee that's coming into an interview, we're all very different. We all bring great experience to the table."
During this transition period, Meghan chose to enlist in the Michigan Army National Guard. She served from 2013 to 2016 and rejoined in 2019, currently serving part-time. She says her National Guard status prevented many employers from hiring her as well.
"They would never directly tell me that," she says, "but I could tell by the interrogation I would receive regarding my National Guard responsibilities and how much that would inconvenience the workplace. They felt I was unable to make their job a priority."
Megan had an associate degree and years of experience, but it didn't seem to matter - she and Brandon both had trouble obtaining anything more than part-time, low-paying jobs. They struggled to pay their bills and feed their family as the late fees piled up.
"I was working so hard to find a job, to care for my family, to finish my bachelor's degree," Meghan says. "When one good thing would happen, two bad things followed. I felt like a failure to my family and my country."
BACK ON THEIR FEET
Help came as Meghan and Brandon were close to being evicted from their apartment. In 2014, they discovered the VFW National Home for Children in Eaton Rapids, which had recently started allowing married couples to live there with their children.
The family would live there for four years. Meghan would obtain her bachelor's in psychology from the University of Maryland and find a better job. They also had their fourth child, a girl named Clarke.
A social worker with the VFW Home supported and worked with them on setting and achieving their financial, employment and health and wellness goals. When they left the home in 2018, Meghan says she and Brandon were fully prepared to provide for their family.
Meghan and Brandon would divorce in 2019 but continue to work together raising their four children. In mid-2020, Meghan accepted a position with the federal government as a Title 32 technician, supporting the National Guard with human resource needs.
Meghan believes employers hiring entry-level positions have gotten better at hiring veterans since 2013. But many employers hiring higher-paying positions, she says, still see veterans as problematic and undervalue military experience.
"I started helping other veterans when I realized that if I was struggling, others were probably struggling as well," Meghan says. "I have always been pretty good at finding resources and researching. I began to notice that veterans struggling was the unfortunate norm in our society."
While Meghan helps the service members and veterans she meets through her job, she's also making a difference in the veteran community as co-president of the Lansing Area Veterans Coalition, a volunteer-based organization.
"Our mission is to connect the veterans to the community and the community to our veterans," she says. "We help veterans navigate by connecting them to resources specific to their needs. I am a certified peer-support specialist as well."
The coalition educates veterans on opportunities in health care, education, employment and quality of life, and partners with Habitat for Humanity Capital Region to run an annual coat drive for homeless and low-income veterans and their families. In 2019, the coalition hosted the Lansing area's largest veteran resource fair, Hero Fest, and hopes to do so again.
For Meghan, continuing to support service members and her fellow veterans remains an important part of her life.
"I joined the military and I didn't realize that I would get this family," she says. "And now I have family all over the world. And I wouldn't trade it for the world."
Do you see yourself or your military experiences in Meghan? 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.