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Central California Life Magazine

The Backstory Nov/Dec

Nov 19, 2014 05:24PM ● By Cen Cali Life Magazine

The Backstory

A military veteran discovers she can write

by Kelley Campos McCoy, Editor

Photo by Leslie Just

Sometimes, the stories that make the biggest impression are the ones that are seldom if ever told.

I met Anna Perez when I was teaching an introduction to news writing class at Fresno City College last spring. She was one of my students. Every day she took the same seat near the wall on the left side of the classroom, a striking figure with close-cropped hair and an easy smile. She was conscientious and unfailingly respectful. Much to my chagrin – because it made me feel old – she called me “ma’am” whenever she addressed me.                                            

She was also painfully self-conscious and filled with self-doubt.   

“I can’t do this,” she’d say, her face turning blood red, as the class practiced writing leads and structuring stories. “This is terrible.”

I learned that Perez was going to school on the GI Bill and had started attending classes at Fresno City the previous fall. A retired U.S. Marine Corps sergeant, she found adjusting to civilian life difficult after six and a half years on active duty, especially the seven months she served in Iraq as part of a convoy responsible for “route clearance” – a deceptively simple term that involved long hours looking for and detonating explosives so that supply and medical convoys could use the roads. 

Her experience in Iraq affected her in many ways. The power the Marines unleashed when detonating explosives was fierce enough to rock 5,000-pound Humvees a seemingly safe distance away. It wasn’t until the intense migraines and memory loss started several months later and she sought medical help that Perez learned she had suffered concussions during these incidents.

There was also the heightened sense of awareness she could never quite seem to shake, as I discovered when we were walking together out of class one day.

“I am always looking around me,” she said as her eyes swept the broad expanse of concrete teeming with students making their way to class, sitting at tables and standing in line at food carts. It was something she and other members of her convoy developed – this hyperconsciousness that could mean the difference between life and death, between being able to determine whether the small shadow between the rocks up ahead was from the sun or a sniper.

Then there were the feelings of loneliness.

“It was a hard transition,” she said of retiring from the military and returning home to the Central Valley. “I went from friendship that turned into family [in the Marines] to family that had moved on without me [in the Valley]. Everyone here had continued to live their lives, and my life just stopped.”

Seeing a counselor helped. So did joining a support group with other veterans suffering from traumatic brain injuries.

“I discovered I wasn’t alone,” she said.

As the semester progressed, Perez discovered something else: She could write, and she had the potential to do it well. Sure, some sentences were awkward and others were misplaced. Mechanics can be learned. What is far more difficult to teach is how to observe – how to listen, how to see, how to capture a moment.

For her final project in the class – a feature story – she decided to write about her aunt, a woman who had journeyed in relatively short order from the dusty fields of west Fresno County to the halls of power in Sacramento. Perez didn’t know Minnie Santillan as well as she would have liked, and the assignment was the perfect opportunity to change that.

“I think because she’s had so much success, she hasn’t been able to be vulnerable – to tell that story,” Perez said of Santillan’s revealing interview, which is at heart of the article on page 22. She said they have since grown closer, especially now that Perez has transferred to Sacramento State.

Perez, 30, plans to continue working on her reporting and writing skills. Someday, she’d like to write about her mother, to whom she is very close.

“They don’t make women like that anymore,” she said of Maria Perez, who, armed with only a sixth-grade education from Mexico, started working in the fields of Fresno County at 14, cleaned hotel rooms in Yosemite as a young woman and taught herself English while processing paperwork for Gottschalk’s distribution center. “I feel I can write that story now and honor her.”