At only 30 years old, Allie Brazas has certainly packed enough life in to write a book about it. In her new book, Flawed and Still Worthy, Allie shares her journey from joining the Navy on a whim at age 19, to the sexual abuse she survived at the hands of her superior, to how she fought that abuse, despite the system working against her.
Allie also shares her story about finding love at a young age and then losing it shortly thereafter and her ensuing journey through grief and healing. She talks about the pressure she felt to present a perfect façade, even in the midst of all of this. In this incredible and inspiring interview, Allie talks about her journey so far, why it was so important to put it down in book form, and what she has learned and hopes to share in the process.
Nikki Van Noy: Allie, let’s start by giving listeners an idea of your background and what brought you into the Navy in the first place.
Allie Brazas: Yes. So, my background is I graduated high school super early. I was 17 at the time. I went from high school into college, and I got my medical assisting certificate. After that, I was working for a doctor before I could even sign my own legal documents. I mean, I was 17. So, that was fun. Then one day, I was just driving home and I felt kind of like nostalgic, maybe stuck. I was 19. I’d been doing medical assisting for 2 years. My friends were graduated by this time, and everyone’s starting at universities and choosing their career paths. I felt like medical assisting was great while it was great, but I needed to do more with my life like I was selling myself short.
I was literally just on my way home from work one day, and I passed a recruiting station, and I just said, “Wow! What a great idea. I think I’m just going to pull in there and go check that out.” So, I literally made a left-hand turn right into the parking lot, and I walked right into the Navy recruiting station. Of course, they loved me, because I was clueless, and I did no homework. I was like, “Yeah, I want to join. I love boats. I love to swim. I was a lifeguard in my younger years, so this looks like a great fit for me.” I signed my contract that very day.
Nikki Van Noy: The symbolism does not get much richer than literally taking a left turn into a Navy parking lot, because you saw a sign.
Allie Brazas: Yeah. I mean, everyone always has these grand stories like, “My grandfather served, and I felt a call to serve, because it runs in my family.” Mine is like, “You know, I saw it and I went for it all in the same day.”
Nikki Van Noy: The other thing I love about that story is hindsight is such an interesting thing. That at 19, which is so young, and you had done so much by that point, you were feeling like you were behind the curve and had to take some kind of action.
Allie Brazas: Yeah. That was actually a common theme in my life and in my book, it is just this constant need to strive for more. Nothing ever really felt enough in my life. The second I’d stop and catch my breath, I felt like I needed to keep going, and what’s the next thing, and what’s the next thing. It was kind of a perpetual cycle for me for really the majority of my life. It just kind of went right along with where I was at.
Nikki Van Noy: Do you have any idea why that is or where that came from, or if it’s just you?
[00:04:16] Allie Brazas: Yeah. I am the daughter of parents who grew up in the Midwest. They were born and raised in Iowa, in a small, small little town. So, we are just by blood blue-collared workers–hard workers. We just strive to continuously be the best versions of ourselves. And so, I think it’s something that was kind of ingrained in me from a small child through adulthood.
Nikki Van Noy: As an aside, I’m so excited every time I stumble into someone from Iowa because I think it’s one of the most beautiful states in America, and people are completely unaware of that. It’s such a cool place.
Allie Brazas: Yeah. It’s absolutely beautiful there. Well, I always joke when I take my friends back home. I always tell them, “If you stay awake for the first 10 minutes in Iowa, you’ve seen the whole thing, because it’s just cornfields after cornfields.” But it is. It’s truly the most beautiful place that I’ve ever been to this day, and I’ve been a couple places. I love it.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah. You have now. There’s something very majestic about those cornfields.
Allie Brazas: Yeah, and the way the sun sets on them. Yeah, it’s pretty incredible.
Nikki Van Noy: Totally. So, after you made that spur of the moment decision, you took the left turn and signed up for the Navy. Did you have any second doubts about that, or were you fully on board and this was the direction you are going in now?
Allie Brazas: No. I was fully on board. That’s kind of my MO. Once I decide to do something, it’s like a balls to the wall kind of attitude that you’ll get from me. As soon as I made the decision, there was no looking back. There was no second-guessing myself. It was just, “This is my path now, and I’m going to run it into the ground until I succeed.” And that’s what I did.
Nikki Van Noy: Amazing! So, let’s talk about what that experience was like. I’m particularly interested in your perspective, because I’m guessing you went into the Navy without a lot of expectations. You didn’t have much time to think about it, it would appear.
Allie Brazas: You’re absolutely right. I did not have time to really think about it. And because of that, I didn’t have much time to have a big expectation, I guess you can say. In that sense, I think that I had an upper hand to other people who were in my same boot camp class, because everyone kind of arrived already terrified, and had already looked at all the boot camp videos of the screaming and yelling and had read the horror stories. I didn’t really have an expectation. So, I went in with an open mind and just kind of wherever this is going to take me, it’s going to take me.
Nikki Van Noy: So, what is boot camp like from a first-hand perspective? Especially as a woman, what is it like?
Allie Brazas: Boot camp is difficult as in it’s a mind game. There’s a lot of screaming, and there’s a lot of yelling, and there’s a lot of that going on. But I kind of had this mindset that this is part of the game, like they’re breaking us down to build us up. Once you figure that out, you figure out that this is part of it. It’s a mind game. They’re literally playing with you mentally. It makes it all so much easier to handle and to deal with. Instead of taking it personally, you just know it is part of the process.
I think boot camp is more intimidating as a woman, definitely, because we’re kind of held to a higher expectation. Because they know, once we go out into the fleet with the rest of our brothers and sisters in arms and we’re serving and we’re out there doing our jobs, we’re going to have problems that our male counterparts might not experience as often as we will.
For instance, there is sexual harassment. There is favoritism in the workplace. If you’re a good-looking female you might get this job or that job or stand these good watches, and you’re definitely objectified. Had they not been harder on us in boot camp, I think we would have been even worse off going out into the fleet than if they hadn’t been.
Nikki Van Noy: So, this is interesting. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds to me like what you’re saying is that there is a bias. But it’s actually a bias that’s there for a reason and arguably necessary, even if the reasons why it’s necessary should not exist in an optimal world, obviously.
Allie Brazas: Yes, exactly that. It’s an unspoken thing. It’s not like you go into boot camp, and they’re like, “Hey! You’re a female. We’re going to be way harder on you. Get prepared.” It’s more of something that’s unspoken that happens and that you don’t understand why it’s happening until you get out into the fleet, and you’re like, “Oh! That’s why my instructor told me this story. That’s why he made me do pushups, because I flirted with that guy. That’s why.”
You start piecing these things together as you serve and continue to serve. You start kind of passing that down to the females below you. You start laying foundations like that and start getting in front of that a little bit. It’s sad that that’s the way it is, but that’s just the reality.
Nikki Van Noy: What was the ratio of women versus men, in your experience?
Allie Brazas: So, in boot camp, there was about the same. A division has about the same amount of males to females. In boot camp, you really didn’t see a big difference. There wasn’t a huge contrast there. Then you go out into the Navy, and you’re like, “Wow!” It kind of hits you like, “Wow! We are definitely outnumbered here.”
There’s a huge difference out in the fleet, but you have enough people on a ship that you still feel like you have a team of women serving with you. It’s not like you feel like you’re 1 of a million, but there is definitely a difference.
Nikki Van Noy: Okay. I am about to show my ignorance here, which is extreme, but can you explain to me how the filtering system works in such a way that the women are pretty equal in boot camp, but then that shifts once you actually move into the Navy.
Allie Brazas: Yes. So, I’m not really too sure how they structure boot camp and putting together your class, so to say, that you go through boot camp with. I’m not sure kind of how they do that. So, I’m not sure how to answer that. My assumption would be that they wait to have enough females to fill a class, and then they put a male and female group together to form a class. I don’t know if they have classes that are just males in boot camp.
Nikki Van Noy: Got it.
Allie Brazas: So, I’m not sure what other groups looked like if that makes sense at all.
Nikki Van Noy: Totally, yeah. And I’m not trying to make you dig down into the minutiae. I just, again from a very uninformed standpoint, would have assumed that the number of women entering in the first place was much lower. So, I was surprised to hear that it was pretty equaled out in boot camp.
Allie Brazas: Yeah. I was surprised myself. I mean, I didn’t expect going to boot camp that there would be so many women that I would be going through boot camp with. So that took me by surprise. Just because you do hear it all the time that it is male-dominated, which it is. I think part of it too is that females, once you get out into the fleet, a lot of females get pregnant, and they choose to administratively separate. So, then they separate from the service.
So, you have these other factors going on with females that you don’t have with males. You are filtering out as you go as well.
Nikki Van Noy: That makes sense.
Allie Brazas: If that makes sense. Yeah.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah. Okay. Gotcha. All right. So, you make it through boot camp. What happens from there? Also, can you give me an idea of what timeframe we’re looking at, so I sort of understand what’s happening politically at this time also?
Allie Brazas: I went to boot camp in 2009–January of 2009. Boot camp is 8 weeks. So that’s kind of the time period of that. And then from there, I completed school and I went out into the fleet. I get my duty station, which is in Bremerton, Washington. I get assigned to a ship. It’s called the USS Emory S. Land. It was a submarine tender. So, our main job was to go out and supply submarines with fuel, with supplies, and everything that they need while we’re out on deployment.
Nikki Van Noy: And did you enjoy that?
Allie Brazas: I went there with big hopes and dreams. I thought I would be headed to Bremerton, Washington, then in my head I was like, “and then we just like leave for deployment, and I’m going to be in the middle of the ocean, and it’s going to be this incredible experience, and it’s going to happen fast, and I better prepare.”
Then I got there, and my ship was actually dry-docked. So, it’s literally on stilts, no water at all. It was dry-docked because a hole needed repairing. There was no deploying anytime soon.
Nikki Van Noy: I hope not.
Allie Brazas: Yeah.
Nikki Van Noy: Not on that boat, at least.
Allie Brazas: Yes. So that was quite a shock. But outside of that, I did enjoy my time on that ship. There was a lot of growth that happened on that ship. There were a lot of experiences that happened that I wasn’t prepared for. I had a lot of growing into the Navy to do when I was on that ship, and it showed if that makes sense.
Nikki Van Noy: Absolutely. I mean, I’m trying to imagine myself at that age and that position, and it would be a disaster. So, lots of respect to you. Looking back, what do you think was your biggest take away from that time after boot camp and in the early part of your career with the Navy?
Allie Brazas: My biggest take away from that time in my life, that period of time on that ship would be to never sell yourself short. That’s what I did over and over and over and over again on that ship–I played little with myself. In doing so, I protected myself from even attempting things that would provide growth. So instead, I just played small and played cutesy and just kind of, “Oh, no. I don’t know what that is.” I played dumb, and I missed a lot of opportunities because of it.
Nikki Van Noy: Was there any moment that snapped you out of that or that gave you the motivation to reach beyond that?
A Turning Point
Allie Brazas: Yeah. What made me really snap out of that was the moment that I got pregnant with my daughter while I was on that ship.
Nikki Van Noy: Wow!
Allie Brazas: That was an immediate shift, and it wasn’t funny anymore. It’s not cute. It’s not getting you anywhere. It’s pathetic. Now, you’re pregnant, and if you want this career to work, you’re going to have to start to step up to the point. That was the turning point in my career–the moment I found out I was pregnant.
Nikki Van Noy: And how old were you at that point?
Allie Brazas: I was 20 years old, very young.
Nikki Van Noy: Wow! 20 years old in the Navy. Your family’s in Iowa?
Allie Brazas: They were in Arizona. We’d moved from Arizona when I was younger–from Iowa to Arizona. So, they were in Arizona, and I was in Washington, so still very far away from each other.
Nikki Van Noy: That’s so much for any age really. I’m assuming that you stayed in the Navy as you were pregnant and had your daughter. Is that right?
Allie Brazas: Yeah. That’s absolutely correct. In fact, you have to stay on the ship. When you get pregnant on a ship, you have to stay on it until you’re 20 weeks pregnant. So, by the time I was pregnant, our ship was now in the water. I had to stand watch, just like every other sailor. I’d have a watch that went overnight, and I was expected to stay awake and perform. You’re treated like any other sailor while you’re pregnant and on the ship for that entire 20 weeks. Then you’re removed from the ship and put on shore duty. It’s no longer safe to keep you on board.
I stayed in the Navy, I did my 20 weeks on the ship, and then I reported to my duty station shore side, which ended up still being in Bremerton, Washington. It was actually the base that our ship was attached to. I reported there.
Nikki Van Noy: Okay. I just want to interject here for any men who are listening or any women who are not mothers. That is so hardcore to spend, especially the nauseating first trimester months, on a rocking ship. I can’t even begin to imagine that. That’s like defying the laws of biology right there.
Allie Brazas: Yeah. Yeah, it was interesting. It was difficult, but the cool thing about it was that when I was on board–they call it a berthing where you sleep at night on a ship–I was so lucky that I was in the berthing with all those other females for the first 20 weeks. I had so much support and love that I might have missed out on had I not spent those 20 weeks there. So, I definitely–I wouldn’t recommend it. But if it happens, the extra love was a plus.
Nikki Van Noy: That is an upside definitely. So, was the father around or were you doing this alone?
Allie Brazas: Yes. So, he was attached to a ship in Everett, Washington. It was quite a distance from me, and he was on deployment with his ship. It was me by myself.
Nikki Van Noy: Wow! Talk to me about becoming a mother at that point in your life.
Allie Brazas: I ended up having a baby girl. Her name is Addison. Becoming a mother was the biggest blessing that ever happened to me in my entire life, to this day. She changed my life and the entire course of my life for the better. I was young. I was 21 when I ended up pushing her out. I was very young, but it makes you grow up quick, and I needed that. So, it was good.
Nikki Van Noy: All right. So then fast-forwarding a little bit from that point, I believe when you were three years into the Navy, you experienced sexual abuse at the hands of your commander. Is that correct? Do I have the timeline right there?
Allie Brazas: Yes. So, it would’ve been 2 years. Actually, it was like a year and a half into the Navy. It was when the abuse started, and it was abuse by my acting command master chief.
Nikki Van Noy: Sorry. I’m still a little confused. Was this after your daughter was born or before she was born?
A Harrowing Time
Allie Brazas: The abuse started when I reported to shore duty, so this was after I was 20 weeks pregnant. I started working for the command master chief after I reported, and he was amazing and incredible. His name is Master Chief Fahrney. I learned a lot from him. He really helped my career and helped me grow as a person.
Then when I was about, I would probably say 7 months pregnant, Master Chief Fahrney got an opportunity to further his career in Japan. So, we had kind of a gap in the billet, and the billet is like the job. We had a gap in the job that Master Chief Fahrney filled. So, for that gap, we put in an acting command master chief who was actually a senior chief. This senior chief took Master Chief Fahrney’s role, and that is when the abuse started. So, I was about 7 months pregnant.
Nikki Van Noy: Wow!
Allie Brazas: Yeah.
Nikki Van Noy: So, how did you deal with that? What does that look like when that’s happening in the Navy? Did you speak up? Did you have resources?
Allie Brazas: Yes, I did. I did speak up. So, what happened was it kind of started off with physical abuse. He would come in the office and come up to me and start play hitting my arm. Then all of a sudden, he’d take my arm and twist it behind my back and bend my wrist as if to try and break it. Then before I knew it, I’d be on the floor and I’d be like, “I tap out! I tap out!” He would just get off at seeing me pretty much begging for mercy like, “Please, stop. This hurts.”
It started off as that, and then it moved into things of a sexual nature. So, from just pure physical abuse to sexual abuse. And when it made that shift, I was scared out of my mind, and I reported it to a person who was 2 pay grades above me. She was an E-5, and she was a friend of mine, and she worked in my command. One day, I finally went down there. I was like, “Hey, I have to tell you what’s going on. I am getting abused, and this is what’s happening.”
I’ll never forget. She looked me dead in the eye and said, “Allie, I am so sorry this is happening, but welcome to being a woman in the Navy. This is what happens, and I wish that I could do something to stop it. But this happens, and you’re going to have to learn to deal with it, and it’s only a 6-month-gapped billet. Before we know it, someone else is going to be in here to fill that job, and so you just have to hang in there,” which was like my pep talk.
I stuck with that answer for a while, and the abuse continued to happen. The sexual abuse just kind of kept getting turned up a notch and turned up a notch and turned up a notch. And so, finally, I reported it again. I decided to report it to a chief this time, which is an E-7, and chiefs are like leaders. They are pictured as a manager, but even above that. I guess like the supervisor over managers. I reported it to him, and he told me he would talk to him for me. That didn’t go over well. Now, I’m in an office with a pissed off senior chief, so that didn’t help.
Then finally, one day, there was a huge kind of sexual incident that hadn’t happened before. It was like the highest the volume had ever been turned up, and I kind of separated myself to get some space from him. I was downstairs, and I ran into another E-5, and I just started rambling off things that were going on up there and just rambling off my frustrations.
I’d become so accustomed to this abuse that as I am rambling, I’m not even realizing or grasping the gravity of what I’m saying, because it just had become so routine. I was so lucky that this E-5 took what I said, and he reported it to a department head and to an admin–the admin chief of the base. They were kind enough to actually believe me and call in NCIS and launch a formal investigation into it. That’s how I got saved from that.
Nikki Van Noy: Wow!
Allie Brazas: Yeah, I got very lucky, and this is typical in the Navy. This isn’t something where the ball got dropped. In my case, it just wasn’t taken as seriously as it should have. No, this is the normal of how sexual assaults are handled in the Navy and in the military. It’s very sad. It’s very, very sad.
Nikki Van Noy: Do you have any idea of whether or not things have evolved beyond this, or if this is still status quo?
Allie Brazas: It’s funny that you asked that. It was probably about a year ago and I had one of my sisters in arms contact me who was still in the Navy. She was asking me how I reported my situation and how I actually got heard, because she was going through something similar, and she couldn’t get anyone to listen to her or anyone to take her seriously. It was the same exact thing, just the cycle repeating itself. From what I have seen, I do not think that this has gotten better. I do not think that there’s been progress on this front, and I do not think that the Navy or the military takes sexual assaults seriously.
Nikki Van Noy: I am curious about how this affected you as a woman and also how this impacted you as a mother, especially to a daughter.
Allie Brazas: As a woman, it impacted me greatly. I had PTSD from it. I was diagnosed with PTSD after this occurred and I got help. I was having anxiety attacks at work in the military. I would go in a closet with a brown paper bag, and I’d have to breathe into it to calm myself down, because male leadership, men in the military–it was like a hot button for me. They would come in, and it would be the most innocent thing that they needed to talk to me about or they needed to ask me to do something. It would just send me to a full-blown panic attack.
It impacted me sexually in my sexual life. You have these flashbacks and being touched in a certain way reminds you of that. So, you can’t be touched like that. It’s a constant balance and struggle dealing with how that affected you and pushing yourself to get better, so you’re not holding yourself back. You are kind of playing with the fire a little bit to make progress, but then also not pushing yourself too much so that you’re fully triggered and having an episode. That’s how it affected me.
As far as being a mother, I’m extremely protective of my daughter. She’ll be 9 in October, and she’s never had a sleepover, ever. She’s never been to her friend’s house after school. They have to come here. I think all mothers are protective, but I have a fear of something happening to her because of what I went through, and I try to do what I can to make sure it doesn’t happen.
Nikki Van Noy: I get that. It’s so easy to judge parents before you have a kid, and I remember thinking, “Oh, it’s so weird how parents won’t let their kids go to friends’ houses.” Now that I have a 2-year-old, I’m like, “Yeah, no way.” Especially coming from your situation, you do start to think about those things.
Allie Brazas: Yeah, absolutely.
Nikki Van Noy: Did you ever consider leaving the Navy after that point?
Allie Brazas: No, I didn’t. I didn’t because that whole situation really fueled my career, actually. What happened was not only did I make sure I got heard and I reported it to NCIS, but I followed through and I took my perpetrator to court-martial, which is a military court, but it has all the same jurisdictions. I took him to court-martial. He was found guilty of sexual assault and several other things. He, to this day, has a register as a sex offender, and he was dishonorably discharged from the Navy after 22 years of service.
Seeing that through to the end and seeing the amount of people that helped get justice because I followed it through fueled my career, because I think it was 19–don’t quote me on that, but I believe there was 19 other females that came forward from his previous duty stations that he had done the either the same things too or similar things too. Those women didn’t get justice until my court-martial. They testified and, so that really drove me to stay in and fight.
Nikki Van Noy: You are a hero. I have so much respect for you, especially because it’s required you to buck such a systematic thing. That is incredible, absolutely incredible.
Allie Brazas: Thank you. Those women were my heroes for sure. I mean, to come out of the woodwork after that long and say, “No, I am going to testify, and I’m going to relive this even though it’s been 6, 7, 10 years. I’m going to do this.” I mean, that took strength.
Nikki Van Noy: So, you go through all of this, and then you meet someone.
Another Turning Point
Allie Brazas: Actually, I met Sean while the court-martial was going on for the sexual assault case. I just ended up one day coming in to work as usual. I’d always hit the gym and then head into work in the mornings. I was on my way into my building, and this incredible guy holds the door open for me, and I’ll never forget. He held the door open. I’m walking up the stairs to go up to my office in my building, and I just kept feeling like these eyes on me, like somebody’s watching me. I think we’ve all had that feeling like somebody is just really watching you–kind of creepy.
I will never forget turning around, and the guy that held open the door and was watching me walk up these stairs. I’m like, “Can I help you?” Just kind of snippy like, “Can I help you?” He was just like, “Yeah. Um, can you point me in the direction of the admin office?” which was like literally just left. I’m like, “Yeah, it’s to your left.” He asked my really good friend, Amy Abbott, who the girl upstairs was, and Amy Abbott is like, “Oh! That’s actually my best friend, Allie.” It was just kind of history from there. We swapped numbers.
Nikki Van Noy: So, he wasn’t a creeper after all.
Allie Brazas: No. He turned out not to be a creeper. Thank goodness.
Nikki Van Noy: So, let’s explain to listeners where your relationship went from there.
Allie Brazas: Yes. So, I gave him the opportunity to take me on a date. And by this time, I had my daughter. What I didn’t explain before with that is that the Naval hospital that delivered her ended up making an error, and I had to get a complete hysterectomy, so I don’t have ovaries, uterus, fallopian tubes–all of it removed. So, by the time I met Sean, I had that hysterectomy, so I couldn’t have kids. No more babies ever.
We went on our first date, and I remember telling Sean, “Hey! I just want to be straightforward. I have had a hysterectomy. So, if that’s a deal breaker, please let me know now. I just don’t want to get months down the road and then have this conversation.” He’s like, “No! Absolutely not. That is not a deal breaker to me. I love you regardless of that. I love you as a friend, and I hope to further this one day.” I was like, “Okay. Cool.”
It ended up being a month later, we were on another date, and things were going well, and I just felt so connected to him. We had this chemistry that was just so natural. It’s like I knew him in another life. Our connection was electric. We were connecting, and I told him, “I just can’t thank you enough for being okay with me not being able to have kids at such a young age.” I’m 21. He was 24. So, I said, “You’re 24 years old. You know, you should be able to have babies, and the fact that you are kind of putting it all on the line for me, I can’t thank you enough.” He’s like, “What? What?” I was like, “What do you mean what? I told you I had a hysterectomy on our first date.” He’s like, “Oh, I didn’t know what that meant. I thought, you know. I knew you were really nervous to talk about it, but I had no idea what that meant.” I said, “Yeah, I can’t have kids.”
So, we took a week-long break. He said, “I have got to figure this out.” I said, “Yeah, you do. You should’ve figured this out.” We took a week-long break, which was the hardest week of my life. Finally, as you’ll read in the story, I had to give him an ultimatum like, “Either you’re going to be with me or you’re not going to be with me. But I’m not going to halfway in, halfway out.” So, he’s like, “Nope. Let’s do it.” We ended up dating, and then he proposed to me on Valentine’s day of 2012, and I said yes.
He was set to deploy May 1st of 2012, so we decided to do a courthouse wedding and then do a large wedding when he got back from Afghanistan. We did a small courthouse wedding with just a few of our friends. We didn’t tell anybody about it. We didn’t tell our family. We didn’t tell anyone from back home, because we were really doing it for the sole purpose of if something should happen. That was always his big thing. “If something should happen to me over there, us being fiancés doesn’t do anything for you. I have to know that you’re going to be taken care of if something happens.”
Nikki Van Noy: What was your take on that? Did you feel similarly or where were you coming from?
Allie Brazas: At first, I was like, “I don’t think we should do that.” I love my parents so much, and I have such a great respect for them. The thought of going behind their back and getting married just left a pit in my stomach. But once we sat down and we really talked about it, I mean, this was a conversation we had to rehash several times. Once we got down to the meat and potatoes of our why, our why was so much bigger than I think anyone could’ve really understood at that time.
The fact that he was so adamant about taking care of Addie and I if something should happen to him, it was just kind of something where I felt, “You know what? You’re right. If this is what’s going to make you feel okay to go over there, to know that we have this piece of paper signed by a judge, then let’s do it.” Me spending the rest of my life with him was never a question. It was just going behind our parents’ backs. It just felt so wrong, but I understood his reasoning. I think had we not done that, he would have had an even harder time going over there to Afghanistan. So, I’d glad I did it. I’m glad we did do it. And obviously, I’m more grateful than ever, because we didn’t know what was going to happen.
Nikki Van Noy: So, what was your feeling when he went to Afghanistan? I mean, I’m assuming that being in the military, part of your reality is that people are deployed, and they come and go. Did you have any thoughts about him leaving, any real fears or concerns?
Allie Brazas: Yes. So, in the Navy, it’s really common to deploy on ships. It’s really common to do that. As far as being boots on the ground in a war zone, that’s kind of special. We send what’s called the Individual augmentees, which are we don’t deploy with a unit to Afghanistan for boots on the ground. We send one person to go fill a job that’s needed. So, we basically attach to an army unit that’s over there or a marine unit.
Sean being a K9 handler and going to Afghanistan, I was concerned. But you never think it’s going to happen to you. I was concerned, and he was very concerned. He would talk late at night, “If I don’t make it back. If I –” He’d start talking like, “If I don’t make it back,” and I wouldn’t want him to talk about it. I’d say “No, we’re not going to go there. You’re going to make it back,” The day I said goodbye to him, there wasn’t a single doubt in my mind that I’d see him again. I knew I’d see him again. I knew he’d come home. I never once thought when he left that he wouldn’t make it back.
Nikki Van Noy: Okay. So, this is very well detailed in your book, and I want to give listeners a chance to discover that through the book. But let’s give sort of an overview of what happened when you went into work the next day.
Allie Brazas: I think what’s important to note is that May 30th, the day that he was killed, it just was like any other day. I got up. I ran errands. I talked to my command. I did what I was supposed to be doing. Then I reported in for work. I mean, it’s just like anybody else getting up and going into their place of work. I mean, it was just so normal and mundane.
So, yeah, I went into work and reported for duty. As I entered my office, I just kind of noticed the ambiance was a bit weird. My coworker had tears in her eyes, which was weird. My command master chief was pacing his doorway, which was weird. Everything just kind of seemed off. So, I found out briefly after that that something was off, that my husband was killed in Afghanistan.
Nikki Van Noy: I know that there may not be an answer to this question, but I’m curious about your thoughts over time. When you look back on Sean and how concerned he was about taking care of you and Addison and how adamant he was that you get married, do you think on some level and some part of him, he knew? Or do you think that’s just the nature of being boots on the ground in a war zone?
Allie Brazas: It’s funny you mentioned that, because that’s something no one’s ever asked me before. But, yeah, I absolutely–hindsight is always 20/20. But I do believe he knew. I think he had a feeling and a gut feeling, and it just ended up being right, unfortunately. So, yes, I do believe he knew.
Nikki Van Noy: So, I don’t even know how you would put words to this. Although you’ve written a book about it, so I assume that you can. But tell me what it’s like to be a 24-year-old widow.
Allie Brazas: Being 24 years old and being a widow, it is really hard to put it into words. I think what’s different about being 24 and a widow versus being 50 or 60 as a widow is there’s this part of yourself that you haven’t figured out yet. So, you don’t know how to navigate deep waters like this, and you are kind of trying to figure it out as you do it. Then you have these standards being so young that just comes with being young, meaning you want to look a certain way. You act a certain way. You want to seem like you’re pulled together. You want to seem like you have it all. You want to seem strong. You want to seem graceful.
So, being 24 years old and just losing my husband, it was like, “How do I navigate such deep waters that have gone unchartered in my life and then the lives of everyone I knew? How do I navigate that while still keeping up appearances and still keeping up this idea that I need to do this perfectly?” At 24 years old, perfection is still very real. Especially being a woman in today’s society, a young woman, there’s this need to do things perfectly.
I think being a 24-year-old, that’s unique to that. By 50, you figured it out. There’s no way to perfectly be a widow. You can’t do that perfectly. But at 24, you’re thinking there’s a way. So, I think that that was unique to being 24 and a widow.
Nikki Van Noy: God, that is so true. I mean, I think I’ve given up on perfection so thoroughly that I’ve sort of forgotten about that phase. But you’re absolutely right. That is a real thing when you’re that age.
Allie Brazas: Yeah. Of course, it doesn’t help that you’re trying to keep this act. All the while doing it, everyone is complimenting it. They’re like, “God, you’re handling this so gracefully. How do you stay so strong?” You just want to scream like, “I’m not. I’m literally dying.” But you keep going. It was frustrating. It was a very hard time in my life. It was the greatest pain I’ve ever felt in my whole life, and that I hope to never feel it again.
Nikki Van Noy: Those are exactly the kinds of comments about how well you’re handling it, that kind of thing that seems they’re so well-intentioned, but really are not helpful, because then it becomes almost like a bar you’ve set for yourself that you have to maintain.
Allie Brazas: That’s exactly it, and I talk about that in the book as that bar and just the constant struggle to maintain that. What you really want to hear is, “Allie, this sucks. This is so fucking stupid. I can’t believe he died. What can I do? This is terrible.” You want to hear that. You want to hear, “You don’t always have to be strong. I’m here.” That’s what you want to hear. But people say things when they don’t know what to say, they say things that they probably shouldn’t say and I’m guilty of it, and everyone’s guilty of it.
Moving Beyond the Facade
Nikki Van Noy: What did your healing from that look like? Have you healed from it?
Allie Brazas: It looked like a bunch of hairpin turns, tons of walking in circles. Healing from that was not a straight path, and it took me a really long time to even be able to say, “My husband’s dead.” For me, it was always just, “Oh, he’s still in Afghanistan.” You can compartmentalize. You can say, “Oh! He’s there, and he’s not here.” That’s kind of what’s going on.
You tell yourself these lies to make it through the day. “Oh! He’s going to come home.” I did that for a long time. Then from there, it was dealing with the fact that he is dead and that raw feeling of just complete shock. Then it was just a ton of anger for a really long time. I was so angry that he didn’t make it. I wasn’t mad at him. I was angry at the situation, and that anger came out in a million different ways.
This whole time, I’m going through all these emotions. I’m still trying to keep up this façade, this image of, “I’m doing fine. Everything’s fine. I’m perfect. Everything’s okay.” Then it wasn’t until I finally got vulnerable and I threw up my white flag and I’m like, “You know what? I’m not fine. I’m actually not okay, and I miss my husband. I want him here. I’m not dealing okay.” Once I got vulnerable and sat in the pain instead of running from it, that’s when the healing started. I think the healing continues to this day. I don’t think it’s something that I’ll ever be truly healed from. I think it’s something that I will just continue to move forward with.
Nikki Van Noy: Was there a specific moment that allowed you to drop that façade of perfection and drop into vulnerability, or was it a series of events that just over time kind of cracked away at the need to pretend like everything was okay?
Allie Brazas: There was a specific event. It’s in the book. I had a major PTSD episode where it was a huge breakdown. I literally ran down the golf course screaming that someone was after me. I mean, it was pretty bad. That breakdown was what cracked it. It was just like, “Okay. I’m not okay, and I have to get help.” I did, and I went to counseling. I still go to counseling. Three years later, I’m still going strong. That’s kind of what cracked it was just this major breakdown that happened.
I started working on myself the very next day. To this day, I’m still a work in progress and I continue to work on myself. And I encourage everyone who’s going through hard times to do the same.
Nikki Van Noy: Counseling is the best. Life is just so much better when there’s counseling in it.
Allie Brazas: Yes, exactly. And I have like a really good one.
Nikki Van Noy: Perfection.
Allie Brazas: Yes.
Nikki Van Noy: I’m curious about writing this book, did that play a role in any of this process? I mean, you’ve got obviously some huge events in your life that you were reliving to some degree to the extent of getting this all down on paper. What was that like for you?
Allie Brazas: My birthday is March 22nd, and my 30th birthday was this last March of this year. So on my 30th, I wrote a note in the sand, which was write a book. It’s always been a dream of mine to write a book, and so I wrote that in the sand, hoping that it’d come true within the next 10 years before I turned 40. I obviously have already fulfilled that.
Nikki Van Noy: Right. Girl, you don’t mess around.
Allie Brazas: I wanted so badly to write it because I felt like I have made such strides from where I was, even 6 months ago, a year ago, 5 years ago, definitely from the days of the Navy, being on the ship and all that. I have been reflecting on my birthday about that growth and how my life was really transformed and changed because of that growth. I wanted to finally put it on paper. I came far enough that I felt like I had enough to say to make a book. When I made that decision, I didn’t take into consideration what relieving all of this would feel like.
There were times where it was super freeing, and it almost felt like I was like taking a brick off my shoulder by putting it down on paper. Then there were other times–specifically writing about Sean was like a dagger to the heart. It was a good week after I put Sean’s story down on paper, just because a tragedy like that you never really get over. You just learn to walk with it, and that came back to me in a way when I wrote that. Some parts were great. Some parts were rough.
Nikki Van Noy: You’re remarried now, which I know because your husband was serving as our tech guy at the top of this interview. What was it like writing about your former husband when you have a husband in your life now?
Allie Brazas: So, my husband, his name is Christopher. He is incredible, and I would’ve never gotten remarried to somebody who wouldn’t be okay with Sean and the presence that he had in my life and continues to have in my life. I am so lucky that Chris really took that on, and he knew marrying me that Sean wasn’t going to go away. He is going to be something that I still would need to talk about, something that I would want to still conversate about, and I would want to talk to our daughter about.
He has been completely on board from day 1 about Sean and has never shied away from that topic. Me writing about him really it didn’t make a difference, because Sean is still a topic that we talk about around the dinner table. I’m fortunate in that sense.
Nikki Van Noy: A good guy. I feel like that is one of the things about death that is not talked about very much, and I think it’s largely because you don’t understand it until you’ve lost someone who’s close to you. But we think of it as this endpoint, specifically in terms of our relationships with people. But it’s not. Obviously, it shifts because their physical presence is gone. But in my experience, the relationship continues despite that.
Allie Brazas: It’s funny that you say that, because I got that a lot a couple of years after Sean died, people just commenting, “Wow! I can’t believe you’re still posting about Sean. I can’t believe Chris is okay with that. I know I wouldn’t be.” And for me, that always angers me when people say that because of that fact. People think that it is an endpoint. We don’t treat other events in life like that. We don’t say, “We got married this one time, so that’s it. There are no anniversary celebrations because you already did that. So, you can’t celebrate again.” We don’t say that when people are celebrating their anniversaries.
Death is such a huge life event, and it shouldn’t be something where we’re just expected to just get over it, because there is no getting over death. It’s just learning. It’s like a dance. One day, you’re okay, and the next day you’re not. And you’re swaying back and forth between this line. It’s a dance that will continue the rest of my life, and his death is something that I walk hand in hand with every single day, and every day just looks different.
Nikki Van Noy: So well said. So, your story is obviously very unique, just like everyone’s is. What is your hope that readers will take away from this in a more universal sense?
Allie Brazas: So, I wrote Flawed and Still Worthy for two big reasons. I think the first one was to show people just how damaging the chase of perfection can be. I wanted people to see that to hopefully help break the cycle. I hope it manifests, even if it’s just one person that they realize, “Holy shit! I’ve been doing this as well. And wow! She’s so right. Perfection really doesn’t exist. What am I doing?” It’s so freeing to not have to chase perfection. It’s such a freeing thing. I wanted to put words on paper to kind of showcase that.
The second thing that I hope people get out of Flawed and Still Worthy is that painful times are going to happen to everybody. Your painful times might not look like mine, and mine might not look like yours. It could be better or worse on either side, but they’re going to happen. It’s really just wanting people to hear, “Walk through that fire. Walk through the fire of that pain, because there’s life still left on the other side.”
When Sean died, I thought my life was over, and I am so thankful that I didn’t give up and I chose to walk through the fire over and over and over again until I finally made it on the other side. Had I not continued to do that, and had I not gotten up and tried over and over again, I would have missed so much life here on the other side. I would have never gotten remarried. I never would see Addison’s milestones.
I think suicide is a big thing. Mental health is a big thing. When painful things happen, sometimes people choose very permanent things on a temporary emotion, even if that emotion is the size of Texas, which losing the love of your life sure felt like that. I’m glad I didn’t do that because I’m here now and I’m able to be in this podcast with you and tell you all about it.
The reason why I wanted to put the book out to the world was for those two things.
Nikki Van Noy: I’m so glad you did, Allie. Thank you for writing this and thank you for being so open and sharing so much in this podcast.
Allie Brazas: Thank you so much for having me. I so appreciate your time.
Nikki Van Noy: My pleasure.