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December 16, 2021

Jen Lewis: Bravery, Service, and Sacrifice

As the holiday season approaches, one of the most beloved traditions is admiring the decor across your local neighborhood. Houses gently lined with white twinkling bulbs, lawns full of inflatable Santas with his reindeer, and lit-up rooftops help usher in the holiday season with beauty and light. But in between the holiday decor, one might notice a simple banner hanging in the window of those houses. It has a red and white background, with a single star in the center. Known as Blue Star and Gold Star banners, these service flags were introduced during the first World War to indicate a family member was currently serving in the Armed Forces of the United States. Similarly, Gold Star banners indicate that a family member died during military operations. Together, they send the same message to all who see it—one of bravery, service, and sacrifice.

Bitwise Industries employs hundreds of team members that have either served in our armed forces or have people in their lives who have served. Our veterans are arguably the most caring, focused, dedicated, and determined humans on our team—and we wouldn’t want it any other way.

For Jen Lewis, Project Management Apprentice at Bitwise, deciding to join the armed forces came naturally to her. Jen’s family has a long line of service and dedication to our country: a grandfather who set up telecommunications for Army bases during World War II, an uncle who saved an orphanage during the Vietnam War, and ultimately Jen and her brother who were both deployed to the Middle East during the Persian Gulf War.

“My family played a huge role in my choosing to enlist. My family didn’t serve because they had to. We chose to out of love for our nation and each other. I saw military service as an honor and duty, so I followed the calling.”

– Jen Lewis, Bitwise Industries Project Management Apprentice

That calling came during Jen’s senior year of high school, when she made the decision to join the Army. “I was a healthy, athletic, young woman when I went in, with lots of experience being away from home and on my own,” Jen said. “I transitioned pretty easily into the Army. I was young, highly motivated, and a natural-born leader. It didn’t take long for the cadre to recognize my leadership skills and put me into positions to challenge me and mold me into a better leader.”

Life in the military was highly structured, with days beginning at 5 a.m. for physical training, into shared meals at the chow hall, and daily responsibilities. Jen’s role as a helicopter mechanic primarily meant inspecting and fixing the aircrafts assigned to her unit, but she was also airborne-qualified. In layman’s terms? Jen jumped out of airplanes, too.

“I was deathly afraid of heights when I went into the Army Airborne School,” Jen remembered. “But I figured the best way to break that was to face it head-on! I was pushed by the instructors, past any known physical and mental boundaries.” Citing it as one of her most memorable moments, airborne training included both day and night jumps. As a smaller woman, Jen recalled being so light in the air that she could be the first one out of the plane, but the last to hit the ground. “I would literally float like a feather!” she laughed.

From rappelling down tall buildings, shooting big guns, and seeing foreign countries, Jen’s experience in the U. S. Army brought something new every day. “I was in the best physical shape of my life,” Jen said. “I did so many push-ups and pull-ups that my shoulders each grew by three inches in muscle mass by the end of training. The instructors liked to drop me for push-ups because I was always smiling, happy to be there!”

But service in the Army brought its own unique challenges, both in general and for Jen herself. “Serving in the Army in the late 80s to early 90s was still difficult as a woman,” Jen recalled. “Even after graduating as the top soldier in my class and always testing high on physical training tests, I had to constantly prove that I belonged there or had a right to be there.” Beyond the constant discrimination and consistent need to prove herself, active service meant intense situations, including war.

“War. There is so much wrapped up in that one little word,” Jen said. “A whole other life I’ve lived, now gone.” Jen was deployed to Iraq during the Gulf War as a member of the 82nd Airborne Division of the U.S. Army. She recalls vivid memories of days spent getting sand-blasted in the deserts, to nights so dark that the only light came from the night sky full of stars. She remembers the difficulties of landing helicopters in the middle-of-the-night, team missions dropping recon units in Iraq, and watching burning oil fires. She was in constant vigilance, knowing that in one single moment she could be instructed to put on all her gear to protect herself from chemical or biological attacks. “I remember laying against a berm, locked and loaded, waiting hours for the enemy to come over the horizon,” Jen recalled. “I didn’t know if I would ever see my family again.”

Jen had always envisioned a long time of service with the Army. It was something she deeply loved, and wanted to continue doing. However, that all began to fade when she started having neurological issues resulting from her time serving during the Gulf War, and surviving sexual assault by a fellow soldier in her brigade just a week after returning home from the war.

“I planned on making a career out of it. I loved the life. My world was shattered and it took a long time—years—to recover.”

– Jen Lewis, Bitwise Industries Project Management Apprentice

The transition to civilian life is one that many veterans explain as being harder than they originally imagined, especially for Jen. “I didn’t want to be a civilian,” she said. “I wanted to make a long career out of serving in the Army. That was my life plan and there was no plan B.” Accustomed to a high-speed, structured daily routine, civilian life was a slow and uncomfortable sudden change. Add in the trauma experienced and observed while serving, and Jen began to struggle more than she could handle. “My unit was high speed; always training. Civilian life didn’t work that way,” Jen explained. “I didn’t know how to deal with that or the medical problems I now had, and the only relief I got was at the bottom of a bottle. I self-medicated with alcohol to numb the pain–physically, mentally, and emotionally.”

By then, Jen had moved to Fresno to live with her older brother and get the help she needed with the local Veterans Affairs. She sought out therapy—both physical and mental—to start her long healing process. It was during this time, while Jen was recovering in the Veteran’s program at Break the Barriers, when Jen first heard about Bitwise Industries.

“Bitwise spoke to our Director, Tyler Hergenrader, about bringing in some veterans to take a specialized class about coding and development,” Jen recalled. “Tyler passed the information on to me and I jumped on the chance to learn, especially since I couldn’t afford it and Bitwise was going to take care of it for us.”

Jen was a member of one of the specialized classes, meaning she was enrolled alongside other veterans, many of whom shared similar struggles as her. Being next to others who had also served was a community Jen found comforting. “Being around my brothers and sisters as I stepped into a new environment where I knew no one really helped my PTSD,” Jen shared. “We were already used to coming together as a team to accomplish a mission, so working together and helping each other was second nature to us.”

That class was the perfect space for Jen to truly begin her new journey as a civilian. A comfortable space alongside people with familiar experiences, a newfound sense of purpose, and support from Bitwise along the way was the perfect combination to lay a new foundation in Jen’s life. “Bitwise paid for my classes, and gave me a spot in a paid internship after I proved that I had the grit, determination, and skill to do it.” Jen said. “I was selected for an apprenticeship and given the opportunity to work on the OnwardUS project. They even helped me navigate my housing assistance while learning this new career.”

These days, Jen might not be jumping out of planes or traversing deserts, but she’s finding purpose in her new day-to-day work. Jen’s story is just one of many veterans, and she hopes the opportunity Bitwise gave her is one that other organizations will see and follow suit. The specialized course and apprenticeship program allowed her to get her foot in the door, and eventually fostered the  confidence and courage to open that door for herself and embark on a new career.

“It’s important for organizations and companies to honor and create spaces for veterans because we still have value—but we don’t always know how our skills will translate into the civilian world. Veterans don’t want hand-outs, we need HAND-UPS. We will prove our worth if we are given a chance.”

– Jen Lewis, Bitwise Industries Project Management Apprentice

More than anything, Jen is thankful that her experience with Bitwise has given her a new purpose in life. Our veteran community is one that should always be honored for their time serving our country, but it’s also our responsibility to take care of them when they return home. Alongside physical and mental care, helping veterans find purpose in their new lives as civilians can be the difference between just surviving and truly thriving.

“I have a reason to get out of bed each morning,” Jen said. “I have hope for a better future instead of just surviving the day. I actually believe that I have a future worth sticking around for.”

Leah Sadoian is a writer for Bitwise Industries, digital content creator, and Central Valley native. She primarily writes marketing material, website content, and narratives for the Bitwise Stories series. In her free time, Leah enjoys a cold IPA, Law and Order SVU reruns, and spending time with her cat, Marge.