They say life is what you make of it and, for Tiffany Freeze, that couldn’t be more true. The 29-year-old veteran gave six years of military service, including a year-long stint in Afghanistan, before an abrupt ending to her military career with an honorable discharge.
In the four years since, Freeze has been on a journey of healing and self-discovery spanning multiple cities and jobs, ultimately finding solace in creativity. She has embraced a passion for costume design and for raising awareness of the mental health issues that veterans often face. Instead of feeling sandbagged by setbacks beyond her control, she’s turned her transition from military to civilian into a rebirth of sorts.
“I’d been doing so much [military] work for so long that I didn’t know how to be civilian anymore. All I knew was how to be a soldier,” she says. Through her love of costuming and design, she hopes to help others process post-military life as well.
Freeze is an unlikely soldier. She describes herself as an “artsy” kid in the “teeny-tiny town” of Bath, Michigan. As the daughter of a high school principal father and nurse mother, she “was not rebellious in school at all. I was straight-laced, always in class, and never skipped a day, other than that one senior skip day, and I regretted it.”
Her family didn’t have a tradition of military service until her older brother signed up for the armed forces as a combat engineer. “I was very angry at the military,” she says of herself in high school. “I was that kid who was just like, ‘I hate this because my brother is in, and I don’t get to see him.’”
Her brother served two lengthy tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, rolling trucks and “blowing things up,” by Freeze’s description. By then, Freeze was at school in Atlanta to become a chiropractor, and she found herself at a crossroads: She realized she wanted to see the world and she also felt a lack of purpose. She made a quiet promise to herself that, if for any reason her brother had to leave the military, she’d enlist and take his place.
It was around this time that Freeze discovered cosplay — the fan activity of building often elaborate costumes and dressing up as characters from books, movies and television. A friend in town took her to a convention and Freeze was instantly hooked.
“It was just like, this is my new life,” she says. “This is my new happiness. I need this. That’s how I started. That’s how my addiction to cosplay started.” She began casually doing cosplay while attending school, losing herself in the details of crafting costumes.
In early 2010 the day finally came: Her brother failed a physical and was unable to continue his military service. The injuries he had sustained in combat and training had built up to an untenable physical state. After some thought, Freeze made good on her promise and enlisted. In January 2010, around her 20th birthday, she signed up and began basic training.
“I remembered my promise that I made to myself,” Freeze says. “I was like, ‘You know what? Maybe this is a sign that I should just go and do this.’”
She trained and became an imagery analyst, an intelligence function that she chose partially because the job prospects post-military would be good. Over six years, she was stationed at Fort Carson and in Germany, as well as a year-long stint in Afghanistan.
“I loved serving,” she says, and she continued creating cosplay when she could. While on base in Germany, she built a head-to-toe character look that involved a full-length wooden staff with an elaborate carved headpiece. During downtime, she’d lay it out on a pool table to work, leading to some sidelong glances from superiors.
“I’d have some of my captains and sergeants come and be like, ‘Freeze, what are you doing?’ I’m like, ‘I’m making a costume,’” she says, laughing. The officers were baffled, but didn’t object. “Some of [the officers] were like, ‘You are such a massive nerd.’ I’m like, duh.”
She found that building cosplay alleviated the stress of a job where lives might hang in the balance.
“Anytime I did a cosplay, I was able to become a different person,” she says. “I was able to [try on] a different life for even that one day. It was the best way to deal with the stress and anxiety, all of it. I think a lot of us don’t find that outlet in a safe way. It’s hard. ... Being a single soldier stuck in barracks you kind of have to find some other way.”
When she was honorably discharged in November 2015, she was bereft. “I did not want to get out when I did,” she says. “That was not the plan. I planned to stay in for, at minimum, 10 years.”
She moved to D.C. to work as an imagery analyst in a civilian role, but struggled with the lack of purpose, stakes and camaraderie.
“It was hard. I hated everyone, everything for a good year or two,” she says. “In the military it was ... if I’m not there doing my job it could mean the loss of life. … That is not my life anymore. I need to stop having that thought process.”
She quit and moved to attend art school in Colorado for costume and fashion design and found a renewed sense of passion while still coping with her new civilian status. She used her service as inspiration, to great success: For a runway show that challenged designers to create couture looks entirely out of paper, she made a piece with elements representing soldier suicide and mental health, modeled by another veteran.
“It is closely related to who I am,” she says when speaking about veteran mental health. “It’s something I’ve struggled with in the past working on and I decided that I was going to do it in a symbolic way, bring it to the forefront. Start talking about it. … That one, it was therapy for me in a way.” The piece is now on display at a veterans’ center in Denver. She also designed a swimsuit made of repurposed military uniforms, which won a contest and was featured in a wall calendar of professional football cheerleaders.
However, just a few classes short of graduation, Freeze’s school was sold and abruptly closed. Once again, Freeze felt adrift. With the encouragement (and spare room) of a buddy with whom she was deployed in Afghanistan, Freeze packed up again, this time settling in Frederick, Maryland in late 2019.
She’s still doing cosplay and works a day job in an office, but she’s also pursuing costume design with a local theater company and plans to connect with the local VA to continue her advocacy efforts.
“I love doing cosplay for myself and I love having fun with it but I think one of my biggest passions is helping other veterans because I know how much it sucks to kind of feel like you’re disappearing, like you’re not seen,” she says. “But to be able to show them, ‘Hey, I see you. I went through this and I’m being very open about it. Be open about it with your doctors. Be open about it with your friends and family.’”
Through an unexpected military journey to a pursuit of passion and helping her community through art, Freeze says she’s taken one message: Life is what you make of it, and what some see as obstacles are actually platforms that lead you to take the next step.
“Don’t let anybody say you can’t do something,” she says. “Shoot, look at me. I’m an imagery analyst that went into freaking fashion and costume design. What?”
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