One of the questions I’m most frequently asked when people find out I’m a veteran is, “But you didn’t go in harm’s way, did you?”
I’ve been asked this question since I first joined the Navy. After nearly a decade of people asking me some version of this question, I have come to understand its implicit assumptions: that the only “real” military service is in combat; that a “front line” exists; and that women aren’t on it. None of these are true, and these assumptions overlook the fact that the military is fraught with hazardous and psychologically taxing assignments that don’t involve direct combat.
Female veterans often find themselves caught in a double bind when discussing their service due to the assumption that women are not combat veterans: disbelief if they are, and devaluation of their service, written off as not “real” veterans, if they are not. While the glorification of combat service as the only “real” service is problematic for many reasons – and most male veterans did not serve in direct combat – characterizing service in this way poses a particular challenge for female veterans. These women already face the obstacle that many, including male veterans from previous generations, do not think of women as veterans at all.
Female veterans often find themselves caught in a double bind when discussing their service due to the assumption that women are not combat veterans: disbelief if they are, and devaluation of their service, written off as not 'real' veterans, if they are not.
Over the course of the last year, I engaged with over 100 servicewomen and female veterans to understand how experiences on active duty affect women’s identities as veterans. Some were women I had served with and close friends; some were strangers who responded to social media postings. They spanned four decades of service and came from every walk of life, ethnicity, sexual orientation, service branch, and military occupational specialty. If there is any universality to the findings, it’s that being a woman in the military is a uniquely lonely experience. Servicewomen are promised they are joining a brotherhood at enlistment or commission, only to find that women are constant outsiders.
Mary1, a Marine veteran, reflected, “Most male veterans don’t identify us as veterans, but as additions to the service that happen to be there. I hope it’s changing. I understand it’s subjective. That’s one thing that I want for myself – women don’t have recognition for what they do. Not in the service, and not after service.”
Servicewomen are acutely aware of their visibility as a minority while in uniform and their invisibility as veterans. To be a woman in the military is to live with coexisting identities that are dissonant with conventional gender roles. It is to live with the greatest empowerment and also to feel isolated, invisible, and misunderstood both by the institution in which one serves and by the society whose Constitution one is sworn to protect. It is why, when many women leave the military, they choose not to self-identify2 as veterans.
Servicewomen are promised they are joining a brotherhood at enlistment or commission, only to find that women are constant outsiders.
Jane, who served in an Army special operations unit in the 1980s and whose husband is also a veteran, explained that identifying as a veteran is often a frustrating hassle. “Sometimes it feels confrontational. I’ve had people say, ‘Oh, your husband served?” because I’ve shown my ID, and usually I say, ‘Yes, we both did.’ A lot of people are unaware and sometimes it’s in a way that’s rude. Other times, it takes a minute to educate them a little bit, or bring up their awareness. Sometimes I just don’t want to bother.” The growing civil-military divide in the United States affects both male and female veterans, and both are likely to encounter ignorant questions such as, “Did you kill anyone?” Yet there is a fundamental difference between male and female veterans upon leaving the service. Male veterans tend to go from being part of a tightly-knit, cohesive military unit to feeling out of place in their communities at home. Women go from being visible outsiders in the military to invisible outsiders in their communities. While both experience “transition stress” associated with the loss of “tribe” when they leave the military, male veterans who do choose to participate in the veteran community will find a healthcare system and social organizations that are set up to meet their needs. Women do not, and may even find that organizations and institutions replicate the very same challenges, ranging from frustrating to threatening, that they experienced on active duty.
For example, I am one of two women in a several-hundred-member social club for veterans of the maritime services. At a recent meeting, a man seated at my table repeatedly made crude jokes directed at me in earshot of the other members. The other men at the table – all otherwise friendly and polite, and clearly uncomfortable with the man’s remarks – said nothing. When I experienced this behavior on active duty, I was often quite literally trapped on a ship in the middle of the ocean. In this instance, I had the choice to leave immediately and never come back, and instead spend my time in social circles where I didn’t have to fight for acceptance.
Retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel Kate Germano reflected on how the civil-military divide causes female veterans in particular to choose to disappear. “The veneration that society places on the military is that ‘if you serve, you’re a hero,’ but that’s not really true. We serve because we volunteer. Women are much more self-conscious about that than men, and I think that can make it tough. And a lot of women who serve don’t want to remember what it’s like to be in the military. We struggle to fit in when we’re in, because we join on the premise to be part of a brotherhood and then struggle to fit in. When we leave, we no longer have to struggle to fit in anymore.”
Lisa Rosen, who served in an intelligence capacity with the Green Berets in the early 1990s, expressed ambivalence about the psychological tax of her job, particularly considering it was not directly in combat: “It’s not as if I was in a convoy that got blown up. It was the Cold War; those things didn’t happen back then. It was the realization that I was a tool and that was it, a tool. Even if we break the tool, that’s okay, we can get another tool. … I have guilt over the fact that these are my bad days, because other folks have experienced these horrific firefights, and IEDs and things like that. … But it was more about the initial realization that for as special as we had been led to believe we were, we were actually disposable, and the realization that all of us who sign up are disposable. … In this particular environment, we were really, truly alone.”
'We struggle to fit in when we’re in, because we join on the premise to be part of a brotherhood and then struggle to fit in. When we leave, we no longer have to struggle to fit in anymore.'
While she identifies as a veteran, Rosen does not participate in any veterans’ organizations. When she has tried to do so, she has been treated as if her service doesn’t count because she is a woman. Furthermore, she noted that the all-male veterans’ groups she has tried to participate in become about “one-upmanship” over “who had it worse,” rather than building mutual support over the shared experience of military service.
In addition to the existing hazards of military service faced by all service members, a woman in the military is more likely to be raped by her teammate than killed by enemy fire. Over 45 percent of the women I interviewed experienced sexual assault and harassment while serving; those who hadn’t were aware of its persistent threat. For some women, identifying as a veteran can open themselves up to questions that remind them of their worst days. Gabby, a Navy veteran who did not experience sexual trauma while serving but noted that many of her friends did, reflected, “There’s been a lot of press about rape in the military. Especially strangers – you don’t know what kind of crazy questions they’re going to ask you. You don’t want to be triggered by someone in the airport who notices an Army patch or something. You don’t want to answer for experiences that you didn’t have, or maybe you did and it’s traumatic.”
The negative experiences often cause women to reflect on their service with conflicted emotions. Elaine, a lesbian who served in the Air Force during Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, served in a special operations unit and survived military sexual trauma. She noted that she struggles with how to frame her service. “I guess I’m still in this point where part of me wishes I had never joined the military, and part of me thinks it’s the best thing I’ve ever did.”
She also noted that when she was struggling to look for a community after service, the existing resources turned her away: “The first time I walked into a VFW [Veterans of Foreign Wars] … it took forever just to build up the courage to walk in. I walked in the door, and the guy behind the bar said, ‘Hey, no soliciting.’ He thought I was there to ask for money or put up a sign, so I left. That was the last time I ever set foot in a VFW.”
That women opt out of veteran-facing organizations presents a threefold challenge: First, women miss out on existing resources that are available to them – which can be a matter of life or death. The suicide rate of female veterans is 250 percent higher than that of the civilian population, and increased by 98 percent in the last year for women who do not use VA services. Second, organizations may not feel the pressure to adapt to female veterans; third, those organizations do not receive needed feedback on how they can improve to support female veterans.
The experiences of female veterans are significant for several reasons. Most importantly, any measures to help veterans must be inclusive. Growing with the percentage of women in the armed forces, women have become the fastest growing cohort of veterans. Next, female veterans may more acutely experience societal and institutional challenges that face all veterans, from the civil-military divide to generational divisions within the veteran community itself.
For many women I spoke to, our interview was the first time they reflected on their service since their discharge. Many noted that speaking with a fellow female veteran who shared lived experiences – positive and negative – was a validating experience. Even though there are over 2 million female veterans currently living in the United States, many served in isolation, often the only woman in their unit. That experience is replicated in the veteran community, but this has the potential to change. Social media has already been a useful tool to help female veterans connect and recognize commonalities in experience, and there has been a rise in female veterans starting to self-organize to create spaces both on and offline where they can create their own communities. But it is also imperative on veterans’ organizations, community groups, and policymakers alike to specifically seek to create safe opportunities for female veterans to share their perspectives.
Female veterans may more acutely experience societal and institutional challenges that face all veterans, from the civil-military divide to generational divisions within the veteran community itself.
I recently had an experience that emphasized why finding ways to reach out to female veterans specifically is so critical. I serve on the nonpartisan veterans’ advisory committee for my congressional district, which covers a large rural area in upstate New York. When I first joined a few years ago, I was the only woman on a committee of 11 men. While I did not shy from discussing concerns facing female veterans, I was one voice and easy to ignore. There are now five women on the committee of 15 – partially because some of us found each other in social media groups and nominated one another to join. In our first meeting of 2018, it was clear that this representation made a significant difference. We spent a substantial part of the meeting discussing disparities in healthcare and health research regarding female veterans and were able to amplify each other’s voices. Some of us were combat veterans, some were not. My congressman asked follow-up questions as the constituent director scribbled notes furiously. Comprising a third of the committee, female veterans had become so visible that none of us needed exceptional qualification to be there and for our voices to be heard: We belonged simply because we had served
The author is grateful to colleagues in the Truman National Security Project and Pat Tillman Foundation, Roger Misso and Ashley LaRue, who read an early draft of this article. To the veterans who shared their stories with me, thank you.
- Names that appear only as first names have been changed. ↩
- “Self-identify” in this case broadly means considering oneself to be a veteran, actively claiming veteran status on employment forms, use of veterans-associated benefits including healthcare, education, and housing resources, and affiliation with veteran-centric social and professional organizations. ↩