Not only is she a U.S. Naval Reserve commander, but she is probably the only woman in Charlotte County, Fla. who has visited the island of Bahrain in the Persian Gulf repeatedly in the past couple of years and speaks Arabic well enough to get along in that part of the world on her own.
When she’s not being a Naval officer she is Charlotte County’s training and development manager. Her husband, Jim, is a deputy with the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office. He also serves on the department’s SWAT team and honor guard. Jim is a yeoman in the Naval Reserve, too.
Cheryl, 42, returned in January from her last trip for the Navy to the tiny island off the coast of Saudi Arabia. The Punta Gorda, Fla. woman could go back to Bahrain next week — or more likely next month — if the Navy beckons.The reason she’s so valuable: “I provide the admirals and the captains, who run the show in the Middle East, with information regarding merchant shipping. My job is to help protect merchant shipping in ‘the area of risk,'” she said.
She routes merchant ships away from areas that may have underwater mines. There are lots of mines in Middle Eastern waters left over from the Gulf War. Many of the countries there also put mines in their territorial waters for protection.
150 days in Bahrain
“Out of the last five months, I’ve been gone three months over there,” Vanande said. “Altogether in the past 18 months I’ve spent 150 days in Bahrain. Both the county and the Navy have been great working with each other as far as my going back and forth from here to there.
“I have a variety of skills the Navy can utilize. I have better-than-average computer and training skills,” she said. “In addition, I’m a qualified duty watch officer and flag watch officer. I also know a lot about the area, and not everybody has that background.”
When Vanande learned she was going to ship out to Bahrain months ago, she took it upon herself to learn as much about the country as she could before she arrived the Middle East.
“I read about their culture, their religious philosophies and the country in general. I have a friend-of-a-friend who helped me learn the language with flash cards,” she said. “As a female going into an area like that, I wanted to make sure I was running on facts and not rumors and impressions.”
What she found out from reading, before ever setting foot in Bahrain, was that the country is comprised of educated, rather liberal — by Middle Eastern standards — well-heeled citizens who live somewhat pampered lives, cared for by an army of foreign laborers brought into the country to perform menial tasks.
Bahrain is the Switzerland of the Middle East. It is the banking and insurance center for much of that part of the world.
The country has become a tourist destination for many in the Middle East. It’s also a place were lots of Europeans go to purchase beautiful gold jewelry and custom-made clothes at great prices.
“They are incredible craftsmen. The quality of their gold jewelry is amazing,” Vanande said.
The United States has established a presence in Bahrain ever since the Gulf War more than a decade ago. It’s primary importance to the U.S. military is the deep-water port the Navy built and makes good use of.
At the same time, U.S. forces in the country generally keep a low profile. When off base she and other service personnel wear civilian clothes.
Women in Bahrain can drive cars, unlike Saudi women. They also don’t have to be covered from head to toe in a burka, like in Afghanistan. Alcohol is even sold in public places, which is unusual for a country in this region.
Even so, when Vanande hits the streets of Manama City, “Everything from my elbows up is covered. I don’t walk around in sleeveless blouses. For the most part I wear dress pants. My shirt is tucked in and belted. I tend to be conservative in public, like I was going to grandma’s house and I didn’t want to offend anyone.”
On base she wears her desert “cammies” and combat boots.
“You’re not likely to see a female by herself over there. I don’t go around by myself. Women are not looked upon favorably if they’re wandering the streets alone.”
What do the people of Bahrain think about the U.S. position on Iraq and the Middle East in general?
“The general feeling about America is not as anti-American as you might think by viewing the evening news,” she said. “They’ve been pretty pro-American because we’ve been pretty cooperative with the local government.”
The United States has spent millions in Bahrain building a port facility, naval base, office space and housing for its troops. America provides a large infusion of cash, which is most appreciated by the Bahrainians.
The Vanandes have three daughters. Chrystina is an 18-year-old freshman at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers. Alexandrea is 15 and a sophomore at Charlotte High School. Katryna is 11 and a student at Punta Gorda Middle School.
What do their kids think about mom heading off to the Middle East from time to time?
“The oldest one thinks it’s kinda cool that I do this stuff and try to learn more about the culture of Bahrain and the Middle East. The middle one has been very supportive of me going there because she is a good Internet user and talks to me by e-mail while I’m gone. The little one misses her mom the most and is worried the most about me being over there,” she said.
When she is abroad for the U.S. Navy, Jim, 43, has to fill in and serve as both parents. He’s become pretty good at it.
“When I’m gone he’s ‘Mr. Mom,'” Vanande said with a smile. “When I’m here, Jim is the laundry king. He does all the family’s laundry. He was an only child. He learned early on to do laundry and cook and things like that.”
“You got to do what you got to do. That’s all there is to it,” Jim said.
All the kids can cook, even Katryna. So maybe it’s not as tough as it might be for “Mr. Mom.” The couple has tried to instill a sense of reliance and responsibility in their children.
Vanande says when she’s gone, the kids’ demeanors change. With dad running the home front, there are different challenges for children and parent. Everybody copes, even if it’s grudgingly at times.
“Dad’s the best negotiator because he doesn’t negotiate,” Jim explained.
But that may not be exactly correct.
“When I was gone the last time I got this long e-mail from the middle kid saying dad has established this point system to help us with our jobs and to earn our freedom,” Vanande said. “She wasn’t happy with his point system and asked me by e-mail, ‘What do we do?’
“‘Renegotiate the contract,'” came mom’s e-mailed reply.
Then she e-mailed her husband and gave him a heads-up that their children may try and hit him up to renegotiate their work agreement. Cheryl explained to Jim that she was the instigator of the idea.
Things worked out for father and daughters, thanks to mom’s long-range assistance by e-mail to all parties involved.
Is President Bush doing the right thing in the Middle East and more specifically, Iraq?
“Personally, this area of the world has had a lot of problems for a lot of years. Are we going to correct all these problems?” Vanande asked rhetorically. “Probably not by ourselves. We’re not gonna solve the world’s problems either.
“But we do have an interest in the Middle East, and it’s more than petroleum. But military action won’t solve all these problems. We are going to have to bring in occupation troops afterward. If we do the job right, like in Europe and Japan after World War II, it will take time to establish a democracy in Iraq with our help.
“There are people in America who don’t believe we should be over there. There were also people in this country that said ‘Don’t get involved in World War II,'” she observed. “In Iraq you have a dictatorial person who has too much authority. It was the same in Germany with Hitler.
“I’m not a war-monger by any stretch of the imagination,” she added. “But we have good reason for being in Iraq. What happens in Iraq causes a ripple effect in the Middle East.”
Why she’s there
What’s Vanande’s motivation for being in the military and serving in Bahrain?
“I love what I do. I do it because I love my country and my family and I want to protect both,” she said.
“There are some people who believe that women don’t belong in the military,” she added. “In nature, a female gazelle will protect her young when they’re attacked by a pack of wolves. When I put my military service in that context, I can do anything.”
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Sunday, March 16, 2003 and is republished with permission.
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