A hot cup of coffee was exactly what Monique Brown needed on a chilly January morning in Seattle’s historic neighborhood of Pioneer Square. Monique, a 26-year Army Veteran, was not out conducting Veteran and homeless outreach as she typically does, but instead, she was waiting for Starbucks graphic designer and illustrator Victor Melendez, a complete stranger.
As nervous as one would be for a blind date, Monique took a deep breath in and out, a cloud of fog spiraling from her mouth into the cold, damp air. Just on time, Victor emerged with two cups of coffee in hand. After a brief greeting, the two sat down on two of the neon green chairs of Occidental Park, Monique taking off her camouflage Army backpack to sit and Victor flipping through his various drawings and notes of his weathered notebook until he reached a blank page.
A clean slate: that is where the two began…
It was in her transition to civilian-life in 2013 that Monique began dedicating herself to making people feel better through Veteran outreach. Through helping others, she feels she began healing herself. “I was so used to having a mission and now outreach has given me a mission,” Monique explains to Victor as he eagerly listens.
A staple to the King County Veteran community, Monique has worked as a Combat Stress Recovery Program Specialist at the Wounded Warrior Project and is currently the Veterans Outreach Specialist at El Centro De La Raza organization. She also runs her own organization, Forward Operating Base Hope, where she identifies the personal care needs of homeless and at-risk Veterans in King County, WA, locates the items, and then delivers them.
Impressed with all that she does for others, Victor compliments Monique on her work. She humbly dismisses his admiration stating, “It gives me something to focus on; it feels so good when they give you a hug or that smile… that kind of stuff gives you a reason to keep going.” And that’s exactly what she’s doing: going.
While continuing to share her story with Victor, she uses the term “path” to describe her life, both in and out of the military, and on this path she is on, her spirituality, love, and the desire to help others guides her. As she described her background of service, military, and family, it was clear that Monique is exactly on the path she needs to be.
A child of the military, Monique and her family moved about the country various times due to her father’s position as a tanker and drill sergeant in the Army. Eventually the Brown family settled in San Fernando Valley in California where Monique spent her childhood with her three older sisters.
One of two black families in her neighborhood, Monique found herself feeling different than those around her. She began spending time, as she described it to Victor, on the “other side of the tracks” where she became more familiarized with black culture along with R&B, hip hop, and jazz music.
Although her childhood desire to be a studio musician did not pan out, Monique’s love for music remains with her. “When you’re down or happy, music is always there,” she states, recalling difficult nights in Mosul, Iraq. “When you’re at war,” she explains to Victor, “it is calming to reflect… you have to find peace. You’re stripped down to the basics. Knowing that there is chaos out there, I would listen to music, grab some crayons, and just color.”
While her love for music calms her, spirituality is her source of strength and the foundation of her life. Rather than focusing on a specific religion, she describes to Victor as he scribbles notes down, Monique is guided by spirituality based on love and the thought that there is something greater than her.
One particular verse that encourages her is, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). She recalls feeling terrified and unsure on the plane to her deployment in Iraq, in which she prayed and prayed the entire plane-ride there.
Bringing her guidance and strength during the most challenging moments of her life, Monique believes her spiritual upbringing and foundation also inspires her to enjoy life’s special moments through keeping her positive.
Through the dread of going to Iraq and the difficult nights of sirens and explosions, there were nights she was able to move past the scorching temperatures, look out, and realize what a beautiful night it was.
In addition to appreciating moments, Monique’s positivity allows her to focus on the good in people. She is not distracted by appearances or conventionalities and looks beyond imperfections many only see.
Based on the love and spirituality that guides her, her motivations to help people are always true and coming from a nonjudgmental place, her presence makes others feel safe. “That guiding spirit led me and saved me; I want to be that strength and foundation for others,” she explains to Victor. Through her Veteran and homeless outreach, that is exactly what she does.
It is not just her welcoming and warm aura that leads Veterans to confide in her. Those relationships are also built on Monique’s awareness that trauma comes in all sorts of forms, having learned from her various experiences of her long military career and that of her father’s. “I could have never helped other people until I healed myself,” she stated as she began to share her path of healing with Victor.
As a child, Monique was introduced to the rules and ordinances of military service that most are not instilled with until basic training. Having a drill sergeant for a father subjected Monique to a high level of discipline, making her childhood difficult at times but the transition as a soldier relatively smooth. It was from this strict military background that she cultivated her perseverance that both helped and hurt her during her service in the Army.
Monique describes adopting a “survival mode mask” from an early age in which, when things were not good at home, she would put on a “everything is fine” facade on.
When she transitioned to the Army, she felt as though she had to leave the “scared little girl” behind to appear as a fearless and tough soldier. As a lesbian serving in the late 1980s, she explains to Victor, she did not want to appear too hard and hid her sexuality by dressing softer, walking differently around men, and having long hair.
Feeling both discrimination and pressure as a female staff sergeant, Monique tells him that she pushed herself harder and harder in order to prove herself to men.
In addition to injury from over-exerting herself, she faced gender discrimination, became a survivor of military sexual trauma, and experienced sexual harassment throughout her 26-year career in the Army.
Although affected from her traumas throughout her active duty, Monique’s service and appreciation of her fellow soldiers remained and still remains strong, she clarifies to Victor. This is due to her dedication to the Warrior Ethos, the Army’s set of principles each soldier forever lives by:
I will always place my mission first.
I will never accept defeat.
I will never quit.
I will never leave a fallen comrade.
It is this dedication to something larger than oneself that makes all of the drills, discipline, and adherence to the regulations worth it. It fosters a culture of honor and a community to belong to.
Whatever the mission, these soldiers fight together, preserver together, and sacrifice together, creating a bond unlike any other. “When you’re there, you have no family,” she recalls. “You rely on your brothers and sisters, your battle buddies.”
This strong support system fostered Monique’s focus on helping others, something she continued after transitioning out of the Army. “I was so used to having a mission and now outreach has given me a mission. I thrive on that; it gives me something to focus on,” she explains.
Helping others has become her mission, her way of life, what heals her, and what guides her: her ethos.
By the second day, Victor began drawing sketches of hearts, hands, and warriors to represent Monique’s values of spirituality, military, and helping others. Both gravitating toward the symbol representing a helping hand, Victor elaborated the sketch with a smokey fluidity coming out of a heart representing a guiding spirit and her path of love and healing, while also touching upon Monique’s love of R&B. “I hope that Vets see the design and understand the path we need to walk to heal and the light at the end of the tunnel- that healing is possible,” Monique explains while going over the design with Victor.
Inspired by the dedication and perseverance of the Army’s Warrior Ethos and forever-appreciative of the guiding spirit that directs her, she named her design “Guiding Ethos” to remind others to help others through love and guidance. “Civilians need to know that PTSD comes in all lot of forms and not to fear it. Veterans can heal from it; just give them a guiding hand and help them down that path.”
“I’ve never heard a story and had to put it on paper,” Victor states while describing the design process. “Most of my jobs are about trying to sell something; to make something look good. Now I’m more aware of the person telling the story. I’ve gained sensibility of what people are trying to say, to listen. It’s definitely one of the most important things I’ve done.”
Victor goes on to explain what he hopes designers and civilians will take away when seeing the design, “All Veterans have a story to tell. Designers definitely should use their ability to tell their stories… to create and be able to start a conversation.”
A state of ease and comfort filled the room as the pair wrapped up their final design concept. The pair exchanged their weekend plans, shared the dread of the traffic they both were about to face on their way home, and joked with each other.
Their anxious introduction the previous morning seemed distant as the two hugged each other goodbye. “We came from such different backgrounds and with almost nothing in common, but we immediately hit it off. I think that’s the heart of the project,” Victor describes while summarizing his experience working with Monique.
“By sharing your story with an artist, it becomes something creative and impactful for others,” Monique states as she describes her collaboration with Victor. “The design is a piece of you and by releasing it, you will hopefully impact others; It takes on a new life.”
Just as Monique helps others through community outreach, her design accompanies individuals on their path, reminding them to preserver and live through love. It extends her helping hand to whomever needs it, giving them strength to continue healing and ultimately guiding them to the light.
From her design’s proceeds, 25% will benefit Monique directly whereas the remaining support will enable [HAS HEART] to work with another Veteran to share their story through the mediums of art, design, and fashion.