For Carolyn Jenkins, joining the U.S. Navy was a chance to get out of her hometown of Detroit. When it was all over, her military experience spanned more than two decades and took her around the world.
During her combined 23 years of service in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Navy Reserve, Jenkins also got married, started a family, and laid the groundwork for her future business, Carolyn Jenkins Painting.
While Jenkins had dreams of traveling when she was young, she grew up in a family of six on a limited income. She couldn't afford college, so she enlisted in the Navy two years after graduating high school.
"I chose the Navy because I liked the uniforms the best," Jenkins said with a laugh.
Jenkins — whose maiden name is Pastrick — was stationed in the early 1980s as a cook in San Diego. That's where she met Jeff Jenkins, who also was a Navy cook.
Though Carolyn Jenkins wanted to serve on a ship, there were limited service opportunities for women at the time, and she didn't receive her preferred assignment. Instead, she was assigned to overseas duty and was stationed in Misawa, Japan, for six months.
Upon returning stateside, Jenkins became pregnant, just as her four-years of active duty neared an end in February 1985. When she inquired about re-enlisting, she was told she would be up for sea duty and would be prohibited from taking dependents.
Confronted with the choice of service or leaving her newborn for a months-long deployment, she opted for discharge. Her first son, Nicholas, was born the following month, in March.
"I wanted to stay in to do a full 20 years, but who wants to leave a newborn?" she said. "There was no way my husband could handle that, or me as a new mom."
After a couple years of civilian life, however, she missed the camaraderie and sense of connection she had with the Navy and enlisted in the Navy Reserve in 1987.
After joining the reserves, she set her sights on becoming a flight crew attendant after meeting a chief officer who was a flight attendant for the secretary of the Navy and staff.
"He told me how he traveled all over the world with them. He was their cook, so if they had a meeting overseas, he was on the airplane cooking. I thought that was pretty awesome," she said.
She took part in air crew training, which included acquiring swim test qualifications, learning about emergency aviation equipment, and being prepared for nearly any emergency, and earned her flight attendant certification.
"I traveled a lot. I would leave husband and kids, go overseas for two weeks," Jenkins said. "And the opportunities (to travel) presented themselves more as a reservist in that unit."
For nearly 20 years she was part of the VR61 Fleet Support Logistics Unit. In that span, Jenkins rose in the ranks and eventually became an air crew training instructor and earned her officer ranking. She logged over 3,000 hours of airtime throughout her career.
While Jenkins speaks matter-of-factly about her service, her husband is more celebratory of her accomplishments.
"Carolyn was a real superstar. She went up the ranks pretty fast. She was one of the first women in her squadron to be aviation-warfare qualified. She was also qualified as a flight attendant and load master and flight attendant instructor," Jeff Jenkins said.
Jeff Jenkins, who was also on active duty with the Navy, said it was tough for them to raise their four boys — Nicholas, Casey, Matthew and Justin — while he and Carolyn served, but they managed and somehow always had at least one parent at home. Their commitment to each other and their faith in God helped pull them through, he said.
Throughout her career, Carolyn Jenkins traveled all over the world, including to Greece, Egypt, Germany, Croatia, Africa and France.
"I've seen places you can only dream about or see on the internet now," Carolyn Jenkins said.
While at times it was tough to leave her young children, Carolyn said she enjoyed her experiences. Looking back on her service, when asked if she would have done it the same way, Carolyn said yes.
"I have no regrets," Jenkins said. "There would be plenty of times I would be sitting in a hotel and … I think I was in Greece one day, thinking about retiring, and I walked out on the balcony and I could see all the bay and the boats and the shopping, and I thought, 'Wow," I could not give this up right now.'"
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