By Brian Messenger
---- — Staff Sgt. Natasha Young joined the Marines out of high school and served two tours of duty in Iraq. But when her 12-year military career came to an end in 2011, the transition to civilian life did not come easy.
“When I took off my uniform I lost my identity for a bit,” said Young. “I didn’t know who I was.”
It was a six-month volunteer stint at the Veterans Northeast Outreach Center in Haverhill that sparked a change in Young. The 32-year-old Haverhill resident and Lawrence native now works to help other veterans get involved with community service.
Young was one of 14 women veterans to receive a Champions of Change award at the White House yesterday. The award was created as part of President Barack Obama’s Winning the Future initiative.
Young said she accepted the award on behalf of American soldiers killed in action. Attending the ceremony with her yesterday was a group of Young’s closest friends and her mother, Rene Betances.
“It’s very humbling,” Young said in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C. yesterday. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for me. I was the product of a single-parent home. I hope she’s proud of me. I know she is.”
Young said she met Michelle Obama before the White House ceremony.
“As the 14 women we honor remind us, they continue to answer that call as veterans every single day in our communities,” said the first lady. “And it is my hope that as Americans, the rest of us will step up to meet that example — to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, and to serve all of you as well as you’ve served us.”
Young attended the Leahy and Oliver schools in Lawrence before graduating from Essex Agricultural and Technical High School in 1999. With college out of reach financially, Young went out one day to look for a job and met a military recruiter.
“It was the first time in my life that someone looked at me and told me I could be more,” said Young. “He said, ‘Give me five minutes of your time. I’ll change your life.’ It took him two.”
After two deployments to Iraq, Young returned to the United States and served for four years as a recruiter in Plymouth and Lawrence. She was also diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. But it was a uterine cancer diagnosis that led to Young’s medical discharge from the Marines in October 2011. After undergoing a hysterectomy the cancer is now in remission, she said.
Young was introduced to volunteer work through the non-profit organization The Mission Continues, which awards community service fellowships to post-9/11 veterans. She said the biggest lesson she learned while working her fellowship at the Veterans Northeast Outreach Center was how good it feels to volunteer.
“It was just a great way to give back to the community,” said Young. “I think everybody should serve whether you’re a veteran or not.”
Young now works as a regional recruiter for The Mission Continues, travelling up and down the east coast.
“I love working with veterans,” said Young. “It’s my niche.”