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Retired Navy Senior Chief Pleas for Awareness, Education & Resources For Service Members Struggling With Eating Disorders

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Leah Stiles

Leah Stiles

I am a wife, mother, friend and Sailor.

As far back as I can remember, I sought solace from the trauma of my childhood with the mystical magic of the ocean – Dolphins, mermaids, the infinite depths of the water brought me peace and hope.

It made sense that I would one day join the US Navy and spend two decades as a Sailor.

Like most of us, I experienced personal struggles and setbacks that threatened to steer me off course. I always found resiliency deep down and managed to navigate through stormy waters.

I had seen too many of my loved ones fall into the despair of suicide, including my own mother, close mentors, my niece and too many shipmates to even count at this point. I was petrified that my story would end the very same way.

When I was Active Duty, I was often attempting to advocate for my shipmates’ mental health but encountered many limits because I was terrified that it could conflict with the progression of my career.

I have learned that eating disorders thrive and grow in the darkness of secrets. 

My voice was but a meer whisper. I couldn’t yell from the rooftops that my shipmates were suffering in silence because then I’d be forced to explain that I know – not only from their perspective, but also from first hand experience. I was more than 20 years into my own battle with eating disorders.

The deeper I fell into the behaviors of my ED, the more successful I appeared in my personal life and career. Unfortunately, it also meant an increase in the secrets and lies, to my husband, my children, my family and my peers. That is not consistent with the honesty values that I once took so much pride in having.

A dear mentor often told me that if I ever made the decision to become more honest, my story could become a testimony that could provide encouragement to others.

I was scared and ashamed, I knew all too well the negative stigma and discrimination that comes with an eating disorder diagnosis.

I got sick of the lies. I took a leap of faith, I came out publicly to everybody I know as well as shared it on social media.

When I did, I was flooded with support and then I was inundated with messages of others suffering in silence with similar issues.

There were so many of us. I knew I had to fight for my life and theirs, that’s what battle buddies do. 

Now that I am retired, healing, and my seas are more calm, I want to use my voice loudly and proudly to amplify the voices of my fellow warriors.

It is now my life mission to unapologetically help every single service member suffering with

eating disorders. I am fully and wholeheartedly committed to establishing awareness, education, and support resources for my sisters and brothers in arms.

A recent study found that approximately one-third of women, and one-fifth of men in the veteran population experience eating disorder symptoms (Masheb, et al., 2021). The intention of my communication efforts are that Military Medical Professionals, service members and those in leadership positions will be able to recognize service members struggling with disordered eating and will know how to connect them with education, support and appropriate treatment.

These efforts should include at a minimum:

  • Each command participates in Eating Disorder Awareness Month observance in February each year. This would be the designated time to put information in the plan of the week, post informational posters on the command career counseling board, and discuss during All Hands Calls.

For example, seminars like this one were a catalyst in opening discussion.

  • Formal training should be provided at various career points including boot camp, leadership courses, (Supervisor, CPO, OCS, etc) command fitness leadership school, and be included in all existing mental health training.
  • Screenings should be conducted during the annual Physical Health Assessments (PHA) and included on the medical screenings for the Physical Readiness Test (PRT).
  • Primary Care Managers and Command Medical Staff will have at least one point of contact at each location that has received formal eating disorder training, can identify signs, symptoms and medical implications and know where to refer patients for further treatment.

We sacrifice a great deal of our lives and bodies for the honor of protecting and fighting for the freedoms of others. Now we are asking for the institution to which we have dedicated ourselves to help us fight for a different kind of freedom: freedom from the debilitating and often fatal disease that is thriving within our current culture and standards.

Leah retired as a Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist in 2021 after serving 20 years in the Navy. While in the Navy she had the opportunity to do a lot of traveling and see beautiful places. She feels her purpose in life is to advocate for others that are unable to do that for themselves at that time. She is currently enjoying retirement life just outside of Disney World with her amazing husband, Coach Marlando Stiles (USN, ret). They are the proud parents of Alexzander (IT2, USN), Ayanna, Alyvia, several bonus foster children, and their bulldog, Beaux. To learn more about Leah and her work you can visit https://www.freedfromed.org