National Eating Disorders Association

Raising Eating Disorder Awareness on a Naval Base

Teresa Hornick

On February 7, 2013, I had the opportunity to speak with a number of amazing speakers at the Norfolk Virginia Naval Station on the serious topic of raising awareness of eating disorders. The turnout was tremendous, the participation was excellent, and the question and answer session at the end was meaningful for all who attended. Not really knowing what to expect or what kind of response we would get from a room full of primarily enlisted Naval seamen/women and a few officers, I could not have felt more supported and blessed to be in Norfolk that day. This was the first time I shared my story to military members and was thankful for this opportunity.

Being honored to speak after Dr. Kim Dennis of Timberline Knolls, I knew the audience was well educated about bulimia nervosa and other eating disorders as well. Initially a raise of hands of how many people in the audience knew someone with an eating disorder, who happened to be in the military showed that roughly 1/3 of our audience members had a colleague affected. I think we all had an appreciating at that moment for just how serious a problem this is.

I spoke about my invisible battle with bulimia nervosa while serving as an engineer officer in the United States Marine Corps. While I was the only Marine Corp personnel in the room that day, I believe my story really resonated with some audience members, who could clearly relate to some degree. Mission accomplished in my book! The mission of my talk was not to explain in detail what my job entailed as a Marine, but rather paint a picture of a young woman (myself) who joined the officer corps in the Marines to make a difference.

I simply wanted to be the best!  Coming from a single parent home, raised by my father, and having two amazing and very protective older brothers, I was in the mindset to set the standards as high as possible for women in the service. I performed at the top of my game, so everyone thought, almost all the time. This peak performance was stifled while I was in Fallujah, Iraq serving as an escort for female insurgents, convoy commander for missions such as land mine clearing, and the formation of forward operating bases. I was suffering quietly with bulimia nervosa, and I had to call for help ASAP.

I know I am just one of many in the military who needed access to professional help for an eating disorder. The picture was beautifully painted by all the speakers to highlight how someone who is potentially very driven to high achievement and performance may have vulnerabilities to development of an eating disorder. Panelists discussed how the military will support someone suffering with alcoholism, post-traumatic stress and depression, however, an eating disorder is often masked by all the above conditions.

Because eating disorders require treatment by someone trained, it is critical for the military to provide access to care, separate from sending those struggling to a PTSD specialist or alcoholic anonymous group.  It is also extremely important that service members can let their command know they are suffering, just like anyone with the above disorders, without fear of being kicked out of the service. If alcoholism, PTSD, and depression can be accepted in the service, then an eating disorder must be accepted and treated as well. Early intervention and treatments are effective in giving the person struggling the best chance of a full recovery. Service members need to have access to support groups and one-on-one counseling sessions that employ evidence-based methodology, specific to handling the disease.

As a final note, the beauty of the eating disorders awareness seminar was that all in attendance took this issue seriously and acknowledged something has to be done about it. With service members, officers, enlisted flight surgeons and civilians talking to me about my story and how appreciative they were for me sharing it, I was delighted to see they now better understand the severity of eating disorders and need for support in the service for those affected. It was a compelling day for me personally, and I felt that sharing my story and talking to fellow service members ignited my fire to want to continue to reach out and help make a change, thanks to the support of those who made this whole seminar happen such as Lieutenant Gregory, and Chief Stiles.

I am honored and thankful for my service as a Marine Corps officer. I met some of the most amazing people and personally pushed myself to not only set the standards for women high, but make a difference as a strong, humble, leader of Marines. Suffering with the bulimia nervosa 90 percent of my time caused more trauma to my mind and spirit than I wished, however my love for the Marines and dedication to my country, and fear of being dismissed from something I had worked years for, made me second guess speaking up and getting the adequate help I needed. I’m excited to see that the military is addressing the needs of those who do suffer with eating disorders, because it could be anyone from a high-performing officer to a quiet young new private.  

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