Cristina Tommeraasen and her daughter Kennedy at UC Santa Barbara
By Marge Perko
Where did you grow up and what were you fascinated with in high school as a young teen?
I grew up in Washington, just north of Spokane. When I was a teenager I was kind of all over the place, but at the time I was super interested in fashion, particularly costume design. I have always been somewhat of a ‘weirdo’ or an outlier, kind of going against the norm. I even looked at different fashion schools but at the time I had no way to pay for school. I come from a lower class family, not like super poor, but not well off.
What did your parents do?
My mom, she’s been a floral designer for 16 years or so. My dad, he’s been in the automotive, construction, heavy equipment realm of things, since I can remember. He taught me how to operate a riding lawnmower when I was six. I grew up in the front seat of a tow truck, I grew up with everybody at my dad’s shop knowing my name -- even if I walked in there now, they’d be like, ‘Hey, Cristina” or “Hey, Spud.” They called me “Spud” at the time.
Why did they call you that nickname?
My dad just came up with that nickname one Halloween. I think I was like 3 or something, and me and his friends were going to dress up as all the Ghostbusters. I was going to be Slimer. I think in one of the episodes or something, they called Slimer, Spud, so after that, I was always Spud. And now my daughter she’s “Tater Tot.” So I’m Spud, she’s Tater Tot. (laughs)
How old is your daughter right now?
She’s three years old.
When did you begin to explore the idea of joining the military?
My senior year of high school, I got a call from an Army recruiter, and I was like, “Oh, I never really thought about this. I definitely don’t want to go in the army, but let’s look into this.” So I spent like my whole senior year trying to get into the Air Force, but last minute they told me I couldn’t go because of some medical concern. They were concerned that I had eczema. I went through protocol to convince them I didn’t have it so I could join, but they weren’t having it. So I just went on with my life.
Why did you want to join the Air Force?
For me, the army’s kind of been like the default -- that’s where everybody goes if they can’t get into one of the other branches. My perception was that, if you’re in the Army, you’re just a grunt, you’re just another number. I wanted to be more than that. No offense to soldiers, by any means- I love all service members from different branches.
After some rough patches in my life I moved back to Spokane. I was 21 at the time when I went into another recruiter’s office. It was the Monday after the 4th of July and I ran into this Navy recruiter in the parking lot. He had on his black and tans and he asked if he could help me. “Well, the Air Force isn’t here,” he said. “They’re never here because they don’t really need people, but if you want to come in and talk to me, I’ll talk to you.”
So I went in and I talked to him. I went in July, and didn’t leave until December. It was just this huge, drawn-out process of doctors’ appointments , waivers and the infamous ‘hurry up and wait’ that the military is famous for.
I’m definitely glad I went into the military -- because I’m here now. If I wouldn’t have done that, I would not have been able to afford to go to college, especially to go to a UC.
I learned lots of life lessons in the military. I’ve been to some great places, some not so cool places. I met my daughter’s father. I have lots of great fiends around the country now, all from that time.
Do you want to talk about the times you were in some of the not so cool places?
When were the times it got difficult?
Boot camp was definitely a battle ground for me, along with Afghanistan, naturally.
Was it rough?
At boot camp, they’re trying to break you down to build you back up. There are some things that made me feel a little emotional. For example, they chop off all of our hair in the Navy. I normally have short hair so it’s fine…but I hate hair in my face. So they chop everybody’s hair off and they allow us to buy clips to hold our hair back – but they never let us use them! Some sort of ‘you have to earn them as a whole unit’ type idea, but here we were doing everything to the best of our abilities, working as a team, and never being granted our beloved hair clips. It sounds trivial, but this is a time when the little things really make a difference. One day, I just broke down! Looking back, it is pretty humorous, but while we were integrated (the guys and the girls in the same room) I had to speak out about the injustice that was the hair clips—(laughs) and I was crying in front of everybody. Complete breakdown, because everything else had been taken from me, now just let me get the hair out of my face!
You mentioned traveling all around the world -- what were some of your favorite places?
I spent 6 or 7 months in Rota, Spain, which was fun. Definitely didn’t see everything I wanted to, but I had a blast. Putting Christmas trees on the roofs of barracks, shh don’t tell anybody that was me (laughs) recovering a HMMWV from out of the ocean when a disgruntled Seabee drove it in there. Just crazy antics in general, with some serious work mixed in there! I got to explore Spain a little bit, and then took a day trip over to Portugal. I saw cathedrals with skulls and bones -- crazy, fascinating stuff, different cultures.
I went into the Navy in December and by the end of June, I was in Afghanistan. I reported to my battalion in California -- and within a month, me and a group of like 6 or 8 other people, mostly newbies, shipped out to Kuwait. We then flew out to Afghanistan from there.
How long were you in Afghanistan?
I was only there for five months, so I wasn’t there for the whole deployment. I met my unit out there. It was very different. You feel somewhat safe, but then you see missiles going off every day. You’ll just be sitting at lunch or having a smoke or something like that…and then missiles. It just becomes normal. You still notice them, but it just becomes part of your life. Sometimes you would think about where it or they were going, but the thought never lasted long. Where our camp was, we were pretty close to the edge of the base. So whenever vehicles would be coming back in, they would drive past our camp -- even the blown up ones on trailers. I never saw any action myself, but I remember those trucks and imagining what happened. What those people felt like, where they are now, if they’re okay…it’s just this whirlwind of “what happened?” And what if that was me? Also hearing about our own convoy security team being under fire, it was so real, this wasn’t a terribly conveyed Hollywood war movie, this was real life.
Within my battalion, we had a convey security team. I went out with them once, from Leatherneck to Kandahar to pick up an MATV, one of the newer convoy vehicles that replaced the HMMWV. So me and another equipment operator rode along with them to pick it up and drive it back down. I remember riding through the little villages and the guys are in the back of the vehicle with me. There was the driver and somebody in the turret, and there were like two to four people just sitting in the back. I was back there with a male and a female. I remember the guy -- he was always on convoys because he was part of that team -- and at a certain point, he shifted his seat and became completely alert. He pulled out his pistol. He was ready to go if anything went down. It was reassuring to think he knew what he was doing but also terrifying to think about what if anything did happen. I was so untrained; I would have hindered the whole team. It was basically my first time outside the wire, so I was terrified. I’ve never claimed to be a hero! (laughs)
Through the villages, we had to go so slow. We would always store boxes of MREs underneath our stairwells. We would be going so slow that these little Afghani children would run up and grab these boxes. On the way back, in the middle of the night, we would pull on the side of the road, and everybody would get out, stretch their legs, smoke break, take a pee…stuff like that. Me, there was no way in hell I was getting out of that vehicle. As “toilets,” they give you this tinfoil bag almost with sort of like sand or kitty litter in it. So I was like, “I’m good with this, I’m not getting out of this vehicle.” I was so new, and I wasn’t fully trained on my weapon -- I just didn’t feel confident in myself, and I barely knew anyone at the time. I was in a whole new world…six months before I was barely in boot camp, you know? It’s just crazy.
Did you have any sort of culture shock in any of these places?
Definitely. Me being a heavy equipment operator and having a few other females within my company, they usually stuck us girls together. I remember driving a dump truck to the project site on the other side of the camp, the British side of the base. We picked up lumber and other rubbish in order to clean up the job site, safety reasons and such. Driving back, we saw they were making a new runway. The Afghanistan native men would be sitting on the side of the road, taking breaks or working, and every time they saw a us driving these large trucks…we got the craziest looks.
So eventually, me and my friend, we’d wave at them. It was a way to say “I’m an American woman and there’s nothing you can do about me operating this vehicle.” It was something fun that kept us going. We still laugh about it, her and I, we are still very close friends.
Sometimes you’d be in a tractor trailer, sometimes you’d be in a water truck, sometime a roller going through the base and there were lots of Afghani men that drove trucks and worked there. Some of them gave us super dirty looks, like this was just inherently wrong to them. Just recognizing the cultural differences was pretty awesome, even in a war zone there is education happening. Others would just look at us like “whoa, what is happening?” There was a little flea market at one of the corners of the base. These men would sell really cheap cartons of cigarettes, Afghani clothes, little trinkets and bootlegged movies…Those guys were pretty welcoming. They wanted your business. Obviously, they were not going to make us feel unwelcome.
Were there any differences you felt between your male counterparts in the military – or did you have a good experience?
I was pretty good at my job and had a reputation of having good work ethic. There’s always that alpha dog that if he doesn’t like somebody – then it’s almost as if nobody else has permission to like them, or else they will become unliked as well. There were already a couple highly disliked girls in my company, so I think that may have enabled me to not be ‘that girl’. In the beginning you have to make it a point to over exceed on people’s expectations of you, especially being a woman. I did that and the majority of people liked me, but there definitely was that unspoken difference. Like not overstepping boundaries, or exerting too much confidence or knowledge. It was definitely this constant evaluating and adjusting, self-policing if you will.
There were definitely some people that abused their power or were completely inappropriate. But it was just something you had to learn how to cope with since you were in a man’s world.
What was it like to become a parent?
It’s the best feeling ever.
I used to be a wild child -- nobody could put reins on me. I was super independent, partier, crazy, but also responsible. When I got pregnant, I was scared, obviously, but I immediately switched my life around. I quit smoking cigarettes. I had been smoking for like eight years. I started taking way better care of my body. I started trying to practice more homeopathic, holistic ways. I started seeing a midwife. There was a lot I couldn’t afford in terms of more holistic approaches, because the insurance doesn’t permit that kind of care, but I went for it.
I was only in labor for 19 hours, but it felt like the worst experience of my life. At first it was fine -- I could handle the contractions. Then she got stuck in my pelvis so it felt like my bones were breaking. They had to give me double the pain relief dosage because it was unbearable. And I can handle pain pretty well. It didn’t help that I was alone a majority of those 19 hours. I felt really, it was an emotional time and you want to share it with someone, especially with the father who was deployed at the time.
After I had her, I didn’t immediately get to hold her because every time I was having a contraction during labor, her heart rate would drop. When she came out, she didn’t cry. They had to put her on this table and check her out. She was fine. Eventually, they gave her back to me. It was amazing.
I had her at night -- almost at 10 p.m. I stayed two nights at the hospital, but I remember I was super overwhelmed, having her be next to me and being alone. I didn’t have the energy or the to care for her and get the sleep that I needed to recover. I remember having the nurses watch her at the nurses’ station and feeling so guilty about that -- but at the same time needing that time. Guilt follows mothers though; it is still a struggle at times.
Where was Kennedy born?
She was born in Oxnard.
Let’s talk about childcare. How did you balance childcare when you were working on the base – and who takes care of her now while you are at school?
At the base, they have childcare centers, which is where she is now -- it’s preschool. When she was very little, she was in CDH (Child Development Homecare) where military wives care for children in their homes instead of at a center – still the same regulations, but at somebody’s house. She was there while I worked. I had a pretty great schedule. I usually only worked two to four days a week. I was home a lot with her, and then when her dad came back, I’d get help there.
It’s getting to the point where she’s older, so we can do more stuff without worrying about naps or tantrums. I mean, you still have to worry about tantrums, but now they are usually easier to see coming and easier to handle…but now she’s riding her bike and she can throw a ball, play and be more active. So now we’re getting to the point where we go to the park more often and ride bikes. I am also a sports fan, so we definitely like to be active and outside as well as watch sporting events. Next year she will hopefully be starting softball. But I like for her to have a say as well, a sense of self and autonomy you know.
How would you describe your daughter?
She’s very energetic. She always comes up with the funniest things. Silly things like calling a stuffed animal that is half unicorn half cat a “kittycorn”. She came up with that all by herself, super impressive! (laughs) She can’t sit still, she’s very active and definitely more of an “outside girl”. She’s a cuddler when she wants to be, but extremely loving. Saying at the most random times she loves me and what not. The cutest things!
When did you decide to start your higher education path?
I went to a couple community colleges before I joined the military. When Kennedy was just a few weeks old, I started at a satellite school of University of Laverne. They had a satellite school on Point Mugu base where I lived. So I started going to school there twice a week in the evening. My best friend Mandy, Kennedy’s god-mother, would come over and watch her and put her to bed for me. So I attended there, I and did about 6 or 8 classes. I knew I wanted to use my GI bill for school when I got out though, so I just did what I could with tuition assistance while I was still active duty. Kind of cut down the workload I would have after separating.
When I was still on active duty, I enrolled at Ventura College. I separated from the Navy in December of 2014. I then started school in January of 2015. I was there at Ventura College from January 2015 until June of 2016. I have two associate degrees from there – one in sociology and I have an AA in general studies with an emphasis in behavioral sciences.
I took an introductory sociology class, a general education class, last summer -- and it just clicked with me. All the lights went on. When I was at Laverne, I was a psychology major. That’s one of the two majors that they had there. It all made sense to me, but sociology makes way more sense to me than psychology. It was an intense motivation and validation of the way that I thought, and where my passion was. I related it back to the military, like, “oh, I experienced some of this” -- ostracizing behavior and the effects of white male privilege, stuff like that. I have experienced this, and now I am forming this vocabulary, and this understanding. I can now share my knowledge, and explain the world around me, instead of being a bystander in my life and being blind to what’s going on in this world. It was just this complete realization.
What made you decide to go to UCSB?
The sociology program here is top rated and the feminist department is amazing. One of my professors from Ventura College, she got her bachelor’s at UCSB. Another sociology professor from Ventura College highly recommended this school. I didn’t know anything about the difference between a California state school and a UC. So at first, I was like, “I’ll just go to Channel Islands, it’s just right there.” I was talking to him, and he was like, “well, you have to look at what you want to do with your life, do you want to be a social worker, or do you want to be more a sociologist?” Both professors helped me with my personal statements and were always there for advice and questions. So thankful for them.
I’m very much an advocate, an ally of different races and different communities. It’s something that has always been important to me, though I am unsure where it comes from. My goal is to be a professor, or some sort of educational profession that will change the way people think and hopefully in turn make social change. There are so many aspects of our culture and education system that need change. Sex education is one thing that comes to mind, along with that the misconceptions and the victim blaming that comes with sexual assault and interpersonal violence.
I would definitely love to go to grad school. Here at UCSB, I am dying to help the CARE department. I want to aid in preventing the mistreatment of any human for any reason. I want to have my hand in change as much as I can – not just while I’m here at UCSB, but while I’m alive here on Earth.
How has it been for you, being in a class room with other types of students here at UCSB? Do you feel very different?
I do feel pretty different. But I suppose one of my gifts or talents is morphing to fit in if necessary.
I definitely feel kind of like an outsider. Most of these students, even the transfer students, they’re still young. At this point, there’s one transfer student who is 65. We can talk, but even there, there’s a gap in experience, but the opposite of what I experience with the younger students. Most of the other students, they’re 18 to 24 years old, don’t have kids, have never had to take care of themselves, or had to take care of other people themselves. So, there’s that kind of that experience gap.
It can be hard to relate at times. I have no desire to hang out in IV. I did one trivia night in Woodstock’s -- that was super fun. I love trivia. So that was great, but frat parties or any parties in IV, I’m not really into. I would feel more like a chaperone trying to watch out for young girls who have the potential to be sexually assaulted. I like smaller groups – barbeques, little get-togethers at the fire pit. I like just hanging out, having a good conversation with people. Not empty conversations about Pokémon Go or talking about Facebook, let’s talk some real shit, you know? What’s happening in the world, why is it happening, what do people think about it, where can things be misconstrued or misunderstood, or where does bias come in…stuff like that. I don’t like small talk, it honestly makes me uncomfortable. I want to learn from somebody else, and I want them to be able to learn from me.
How has it been for you at the Veterans Resource Center here?
The VRC has been great. Before I got here, I did a lot of research on my own -- just because that’s what I do! I’m kind of impatient when it comes to waiting for other people to do things for me. I’d rather just do it myself. By the time I met Kevin, I was pretty well dialed-in on what I needed to do on campus. It’s definitely been nice having people that I can relate to, especially other female vets.
After I met Kevin and he realized what a go-getter I am, he basically said I needed to work at the VRC because he was impressed with my initiative and research skills.
What do you do for Hagedorn’s team at the VRC?
Right now, I’m helping Kevin formulate an outreach program to create awareness about veterans and other non-traditional students here among different departments on campus. I’ve been helping with the power point and the formulation of our outreach. Eventually, I’d be working at transfer and orientation events, presenting about us.
I also just finished formulating a contact list for non-traditional students that have children for childcare, the Food Bank, elementary schools out in Isla Vista, and other community resources. We are trying to form this contact list and a network of people in different departments so we can send people to specific contacts, instead of just sending them to a random person. If you don’t know how to deal with veterans or other non-traditional students, you’re just going to treat someone like they are 18-years old, who hasn’t had any life experience. Veterans and other non-traditional students, they don’t want to be talked to like they’re little kids.
I have recently started to spend a lot more time at the RCSGD, trying to bridge that gap between the communities on campus. I love it over there, Christine and Abby along with the student staff, they’re all amazing. I feel so blessed to have people I can relate to around campus.
Are you happy?
If you had an unlimited budget, what would you do in five years?
I would travel. I think that’s the best education. I would go everywhere. I want my daughter to be cultured and be educated about different cultures. I’m of Norwegian descent, so I definitely want to go to Norway and Sweden. I want to go everywhere -- Egypt, India, Saudi Arabia, Chile, Turkey, Japan, Argentina, Ireland…I’ll go anywhere where I can learn.