From Napa Valley Register: They Served with Honor: Single mother Edens found life-long lessons, and memories, in the military

September 19, 2020 by Jennifer Huffman

Jessica J. Edens doesn’t come from a family with a strong military background.

“My dad got drafted to Vietnam,” she said. But, “That’s about it.”

“I’m the only one” from her family that’s recently been in the military, said Edens, who lives in Angwin.

Yet enlisting was something that Edens had long wished for and something that’s become one of the key touchpoints of her life so far.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without the military,” said Edens.

The decision

“Ever since I was 16,” she wanted to join, said Edens.

“I wanted to contribute,” she said. That and, “I thought it was the right thing to do. I think everyone should serve a term of service.”

Edens was 28 when she signed up.

“I was just at that point of my life,” she said. “I was looking at a change of pace.”

Edens, who is now 34, said she was a bit of an anomaly when she joined the military – in her case, the Army.

Edens wasn’t a fresh high school graduate. In fact, she was married – to a man who was not in the military—and had three children.

She might have enlisted earlier, but the timing wasn’t right, said Edens. When she was in her early 20s she had young children. It wasn’t a good time to leave them, she said.

Before she enlisted, Edens and her family were living in Pennsylvania, she was enrolled in college and was working for the Department of Agriculture.

At first, her spouse didn’t support the idea. “He was very against it,” said Edens.

However, eventually, he agreed. “I was persistent enough to where he understood that was something I wanted to do,” she said.

“It was like now or never,” she said. “I had the support; I knew my kids were going to be OK.”

She enlisted in the Army in 2013.

“I went into the Army because in that branch you pick a job and that’s what you do,” said Edens. In other branches of the military, that’s not always the case, she said.

Within the Army she decided to train in the medical field. “I definitely wanted to get some skills I would use on the outside that were realistic and applicable,” said Edens.

Like most soldiers, it started with basic training. Hers took place at Fort Sill in Oklahoma.

“It was intense,” said Edens. However, “It wasn’t as physically hard as people think. It was more mentally challenging.”

“You are forced to work with people you’ve never met” of different ages and personalities.

At 28, Edens was older than many of her fellow trainees.

“You see these younger kids (acting) rebellious, getting in trouble — and everybody got punished as a team,” regardless of fault. “I understand why they do that, but it was frustrating.”

“I just tried to assimilate,” she said. “Just get in there and learn the ropes and then go to school. And get physically fit.”

After basic training, Edens then went to Advanced Individual Training (AIT). She’d chosen to train as an X-ray technician. That training was long and hard, she said.

“That was very challenging.”

Not to mention that it was the first time she’d been separated from her kids. The rest of the family remained in Pennsylvania.

On duty at Fort Sam Houston

After one year of AIT, she was sent to her first duty station, Fort Sam Houston hospital in San Antonio. By that time, the family had reunited and moved to Texas.

Next, in 2014 Edens and her family were sent to Virginia, to work at the Fort Belvoir Community Hospital.

She enjoyed her work as an X-ray technician in those big area hospitals, she said. Later, she also trained and worked as a dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) bone scan technician.

For Edens, some of the best parts of that job included meeting many different kinds of people including veterans, active duty members and even politicians like Joe Biden.

“My favorite part was working at Fort Sam because it was an inner city hospital, and it was open to the public,” she said.

“There was a lot of activity. I learned so much. I really liked the fast pace of it. There was always something going on.”

All branches of the military worked together in one big hospital, she said. “It was a really cool environment.”

Even though she volunteered a number of times, she never deployed, said Edens.

“I volunteered to go to Afghanistan and Korea” to work in a military hospital, but it didn’t happen.

Yes, she was prepared to leave her family for that time, she said.

“It’s part of what I signed up for,” she said. “If I was going to be in the military, I wanted to be in the military 100 percent.”

Family changes and a move to California

During her time in the military, things changed in her family. Edens and her husband divorced in 2016. In 2017, she left active duty and moved to California.

“I wanted to go back to school and finish my degree,” she explained. As much as she enjoyed the military, leaving the service lets her focus on school. “There is more of a work/life balance, especially as a single parent,” she said.

In 2017, Edens enrolled at Pacific Union College in Angwin. Why PUC? For one thing, Edens liked how PUC was sort of “tucked away” and offered family housing. She wanted “a place where I could focus on school and not get distracted.”

She wasn’t sure how her kids would react, Edens admitted. She thought the kids would think there was nothing to do in Angwin and they’d “revolt,” she said jokingly. “But they actually embraced it,” said Edens. “They like it up here.” Her children go to school in St. Helena.

Edens studied environmental science at PUC and graduated in 2019. The college is Adventist-faith based, but she’s not Adventist. Regardless, “it didn’t make me feel uncomfortable,” she said.

Today, she still lives in Angwin and now works for PUC, part time.

She works part time for the biology department as a lab coordinator and works for the sustainable policy section of a nonprofit called “AI for Good Foundation.” Right now, both jobs are done virtually.

As if that wasn’t enough, she’s also enrolled in school, again. This time, as a distance learning MBA student with Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. She’d like to work with the latest issues regarding environmental policy and legislation.

She recently received an $8,000 scholarship from the Napa Valley Community Foundation and the George and Gwendolyn Goodin Scholarship Fund towards her studies. That money will pay for a whole term at Johns Hopkins, she said. “I’m very, very blessed.”

Between her family, two jobs and school, how does she have time to fit it all in?

“Extreme scheduling,” she said. That and “independent kids.”

When asked if she’d recommend joining the military to others, Edens response was definitive.

“Absolutely,” she said. “I’m all for it.”

In fact, “My daughter might join when she graduates next year.”

“It’s definitely not for everybody, but the benefits outweigh the costs,” said Edens. “And you’ll learn things and be exposed to things that you won’t get anywhere else.”

“You make friends in the military that you will have forever,” said Edens. “There’s this bond. You can always count on a veteran for unequivocal support.”

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