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As we commemorate Veterans Day, we honor the sacrifice and bravery of those who have served our nation. Yet, amidst the gratitude and recognition, it's essential to acknowledge the unseen battles that many veterans wage within themselves. Today, I want to share a personal story of recovery, resilience, and renewal – a voyage that led to the birth of SEA WAVES, a beacon of Support, Education, Awareness, Wellness, and Validation for Eating disorders and Self-care.

THE UNSEEN VOYAGE The story I share, echoing the narratives of countless veterans, is a tale of paradoxical coexistence – a dance between the outward projection of strength and the hidden embrace of vulnerability. During my time as a dedicated Sailor in the United States Navy, I wore my uniform as a badge of honor, a testament to my unwavering commitment to duty. Yet, just beneath the surface of this facade, a silent and relentless struggle with an eating disorder waged a battle for control, one that threatened to consume not just my physical well-being, but the very essence of my existence. In the uniform, I stood as a representation of discipline and honor, a symbol of tenacity. I forced myself to maintain that honor to the highest standards possible. Yet, in the privacy of my own thoughts, the turmoil of an internal conflict raged on. The very essence of duality was starkly evident – a contradiction between the strong exterior I presented to the world and the vulnerability that gnawed at my core. The weight of secrets and lies strained against the very fiber of my integrity. The deeper I descended into my eating disorder, the higher I climbed in my personal and professional life. As I navigated the tides of military service, I encountered a harsh truth that would come to define my journey: strength, as demonstrated in uniform, is no impervious shield against the onslaught of mental health challenges. This realization punctured the myth that those who exhibit strength are immune to the trials of mental well-being. Rather, it laid out the undeniable truth that within the heart of every warrior beats the potential for vulnerability.

THE JOURNEY TO RESTORATION Emerging from decades of silence, I chose to chart a new course by sharing my story – not for sympathy, but to cast light on a topic shrouded in shadows: eating disorders within the military. As I navigated my own recovery, I realized that there were countless others suffering in silence, trapped by stigma and a lack of resources. My trajectory took a crucial turn when I crossed paths with a leader whose determination to support me was unyielding. His tireless endeavors paved the path to the vital inpatient treatment that was an urgent necessity. With the arrival of 2021, concluding my two decades of service, I transitioned as a Senior Chief into retirement, armed with fresh resilience and an unwavering determination to create an impact. As I've come to understand, the path to resilience isn't about avoiding fear and challenges. Instead, it's a journey that requires the guts to face the shadows within ourselves. It means reaching out for help, even when we're supposed to be the tough ones. That act of seeking support, when it seems like we should have it all together, is where true courage lies. Resilience doesn't mean having no problems; it means diving headfirst into them. What I've learned, deep in my bones, is that real strength doesn't come from pushing vulnerability away. It blooms when we embrace it. The push-and-pull of strength and vulnerability isn't a battle to be won; they're the two sides of our human experience. My journey wasn't about moving from vulnerable to strong, but about realizing that both are essential parts of being a warrior. The journey I embarked upon was not a journey from vulnerability to strength, but a realization that both aspects are integral threads in the tapestry of a warrior's existence.

EMBARKING ON THE SEA WAVES VOYAGE Harnessing the power of my personal story, I recognized that awareness is the compass guiding transformation. With a burning desire to support my fellow service members, I embarked on a journey with SEA WAVES, aiming to establish a harbor where service members struggling with eating disorders could discover resources, camaraderie, and a solid support system. We envision a future where proactive measures are taken to prevent the development of eating disorders in the military and where early intervention and accessible treatment options are readily available. Our mission is straightforward: to extend a lifeline to those silently combating eating disorders within the military. Just like waves draw strength from the vastness of the ocean, our mission is to equip service members with the tools they need for recovery, forging a space where their challenges are met with validation and understanding. Through strategic partnerships and tailored programs at SEA WAVES, we hope to dissolve the stigma surrounding mental health in the military and create a safe harbor for individuals to heal and thrive. We create a culture of understanding, support, and resilience, ensuring that every service member has access to the necessary tools and assistance needed to overcome eating disorders and achieve optimal health and mission readiness.

A RENEWED VOYAGE On this Veterans Day, let's remember that recovery and resilience are intertwined, and that every veteran's story is a testament to the strength of the human spirit. My own journey from darkness to light, from struggle to strength, exemplifies the might that accompanies seeking assistance and embracing camaraderie. By sharing my journey, I hope to illuminate the lesser-known struggle of eating disorders within the military and inspire those in pain to reach out for help. Recovery is an attainable port, and resilience is the anchor upon which a revitalized life can be built.

CONCLUSION Let us honor our veterans by acknowledging their courage. Let us embrace the strength that comes from vulnerability, the resilience that arises from seeking help, and the renewal that follows the darkest struggles.

As SEA WAVES leads the charge in aiding service members battling eating disorders, we invite you to join our mission. As we salute those who have served, let us also be reminded that recovery is a voyage shared. Together, we can collaborate to turn battles into victories, pain into purpose, and struggle into strength. Spread the word about our vital resources, offer your valuable contributions, or generously volunteer to support our cause. Your involvement holds the power to transform the lives of those silently battling, providing them with the support and resources they urgently require. Together, we can make waves of change.

Leah Stiles (she/her), hailing from Albany, New York, embarked on an incredible journey of dedication and service. She wholeheartedly embraced her call to duty by in the United States Navy. Beyond her military accolades, Leah is the proud wife of Marlando Stiles and a devoted mother to Alexzander, Ayanna, Alyvia, and many “bonus” kids, with their beloved bulldog Beaux as a faithful companion.

Leah Stiles's extraordinary voyage in the Navy came to a significant milestone with her retirement, marking a transformative chapter in her life. Drawing upon her vast experiences, she established SEA WAVES, an organization passionately committed to aiding service members and their families in combating eating disorders within the military community. Through her leadership, Leah is not only molding the military's culture but also ensuring a brighter and healthier future for everyone involved. Her unwavering dedication is providing resources that service members with eating disorders wouldn't otherwise have access to, making a lasting impact on the lives she touches.

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