Continuing her service

Combat zone: Megan Cavanaugh served nine months on deployment to Iraq in late 2006 and early ’07, including a six-week period when she was assigned to a critical security detail in the town of Haqlaniyah. Above, she served with Lionesses, a group of women Marines who carried out body searches on would-be female civilians. SOURCE: MEGAN CAVANAUGH

Megan Cavanaugh wasn’t supposed to see combat. Although a duly-trained Marine, she was — and remains — a woman. And women could get hurt real bad in combat, according to the policy makers for the United States military.

Yet, after serving nine months on deployment to Iraq in late 2006 and early ’07, Cavanaugh somehow returned stateside intact and with some eerily astute anecdotes of the combat experience.

“Every time you saw something attractive, like a beautiful building, you knew you were gonna get blown up,” Cavanaugh recalled during a recent interview. “Or when you heard their call to prayer and you’d see everybody scatter.”

The moral of the story: don’t get caught smelling the roses in a combat zone. Cavanaugh, who grew up in Lawncrest and Burholme, didn’t glean that wisdom second-hand. She lived it, particularly during a six-week period when she was assigned to a critical security detail in the Iraqi town of Haqlaniyah in Al-Anbar province, about 160 miles upriver from Baghdad.

One day while on patrol, a bomb exploded beneath her 7-ton armor-plated truck. While others in her convoy took heavy damage, Cavanaugh emerged unscathed and with a heightened appreciation of hazardous duty, along with the sacrifices that those in the military and their families make to protect the nation’s security.

“We were technically closed from a lot of combat positions, but as they say, the lines are now blurred,” she said. “If you’re in a convoy and you get attacked, all of a sudden you’re in combat.”

Cavanaugh went on to serve eight years on active duty, rising to the rank of E-5, a sergeant. Now 28 and a single mom living in Fox Chase, she continues to advocate for America’s needy veterans in both volunteer and professional capacities. It is this record of uniformed and civilian service that will be key to her chances of winning next month’s Ms. Veteran America competition in Las Vegas.

“This is their fourth year. Their motto is grace, poise, beauty and advocacy,” Cavanaugh said. “It’s about bringing the woman into focus as the war fighter and the veteran, but also as the mother, the daughter, the wife and the sister.”

Ms. Veteran America was created by the same people who founded Final Salute Inc., namely Jaspen Boothe — a disabled Army vet, single mom and cancer survivor from Chicago, who found herself without a job or a place to live after her diagnosis in 2005.

After extensive treatment, recovery and return to active duty, Boothe founded Final Salute in 2010 to provide shelter to homeless women veterans and their children. Since then, the organization has helped more than 900 women veterans and their children in about 30 states and U.S. territories. Proceeds from Ms. Veteran America, which will be held Oct. 18 in the Ham Concert Hall at UNLV, support Final Salute.

That mission is dear to Cavanaugh, not because she ever found herself homeless, but because she knows all too well the challenges that women must overcome in the military and as veterans.

“I was a Marine for eight years, but when I tell vets that I’m a Marine, they say, ‘No way.’ Then they chuckle and say, ‘They didn’t make them like you in my day.’ And when people see me at the VA hospital, they think I’m someone’s wife,” Cavanaugh said.

It’s unlikely that anyone will make the same mistake once she’s on the stage in Vegas. According to Cavanaugh, organizers shun the characterization that the event is a pageant. They prefer the term competition, which suits Cavanaugh just fine.

“I’m not a pageant-type girl,” she said. “I don’t wear makeup. I do wear heels, but I sprained my ankle wearing them when I put somebody in a rear naked choke hold while watching UFC.”

She entered the contest partly for fun and partly to spread awareness about issues like military suicides and sexual assault in the military. She has lost close friends to suicide and is, herself, a sexual assault survivor.

Cavanaugh was busy getting her psychology degree from Drexel on the day of a regional qualifier in Arlington, so the organizers allowed her to submit a video application and interview by telephone. She was chosen from among 400 entrants for 25 spots in the finals.

Although the finalists will wear gowns and perform in a talent segment — Cavanaugh will bellydance, a style she began studying specifically for the event — an emphasis will be placed on personal interviews. Contestants will discuss their military careers and their accomplishments as civilians.

“They’re looking for advocacy, women who are giving back,” Cavanaugh said. “Women who served and are still serving.”

Cavanaugh, a St. William Grade School graduate, committed to the Marine Corps while still a student at Girls High. Her interest in the military grew from her dismay at the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when Cavanaugh was a sophomore. In the aftermath of the bombings, military officials distributed recruiting forms around school. Students who were interested in receiving more information were asked to give their email addresses. When the sign-up sheet reached Cavanaugh, only a few pupils were on the list. She saw the response as poor, considering the gravity of the situation, and added her name.

By her senior year, several of her guy friends had already signed up for a deferred enlistment and were working out with recruiters in preparation. Cavanaugh, who was athletic and considered herself a tomboy, decided to join them. Among the various military branches, the Marines were the obvious choice.

The Air Force recruiting office at Roosevelt Mall always seemed to be closed when Cavanaugh showed up. The nearby Army office never appealed to her. She ruled out the Navy because she can’t stand boats. On the other hand, the Marine Corps slogan “first in, last out” drew her attention.

“I figured the Marine Corps is the hardest, so why not be the best? I was already brainwashed,” she said.

Her training included the legendary 13-week boot camp at Parris Island and subsequent combat training, followed by administrative training. Her first assignment was with Combat Logistics Battalion 1, a member of the 1st Marine Logistics Group at Camp Lejeune.

That was in early 2005. By mid-’06, she had been deployed to Iraq. And late that year, she was chosen for a vital security detail in a critical crossroads town near the man-made Hadithah Dam Lake and power plant. Male insurgents were dressing in traditional Islamic women’s clothing to conceal weapons while breaching the town’s secure perimeter. Male Marines weren’t allowed to search the suspicious travelers out of respect for the locals’ religious tenets. So the American commanders created Lionesses, a group of women Marines who carried out body searches on would-be female civilians. That’s when Cavanaugh served side-by-side with male counterparts on the front lines.

After six weeks, her unit returned to the U.S. Cavanaugh reenlisted and would serve the next five years in Washington, D.C., as one of five Marine Corps liaisons to the U.S. Senate. In that duty, Cavanaugh routinely helped plan official trips and accompanied senators abroad. One notable stop was Dublin, where she joined Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont for a meal at the home of U2’s frontman Bono.

After her discharge, Cavanaugh worked at the Veterans Multi-Service Center in Old City, where she assisted veterans who had fallen on hard times, helping them with housing, employment services and other needs. She recently left the center to take a Defense Department position at the Defense Logistic Agency, commonly known as the Navy Depot, in the Northeast. In her spare time, she routinely coordinates winter coat drives and other collections to benefit vets in need.

And she’s staying involved in issues specific to women veterans, corresponding and offering advice to others though web-based chats and message boards.

“Being a woman in the military is hard because you don’t feel you fit in anywhere,” she said. “You don’t want to be pigeon-holed and don’t want to be looked at any differently. You get into the chat rooms and find out that all (military women) have the same things they’re dealing with.” ••

Megan Cavanaugh

A true beauty: Fox Chase resident Megan Cavanaugh served eight years in the U.S. Marine Corps, rising to the rank of sergeant. Above, she continues to help needy veterans, such as her volunteer work at the Veterans Multi-Service Center. Next month, she will enter the Ms. Veteran America competition, an event aimed at bringing women into focus as soldiers, veterans, and also mothers and wives. KEVIN COOK / FOR THE TIMES