Women Veterans Have Unique Transition Problems, But We Don't See Them

Woman at work (Stock image)
(Stock image)

Jennifer Anthony is a retired Air Force chief master sergeant and the managing director of IT for Lorien Health Services. She serves on the Commission for Veterans and Military Families in Howard County, Maryland, and is a 2019 Scholar at the Bush Institute Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program.

"Of course you landed a good job. You were a Chief!"

"It's great to see your successful transition."

"I knew you'd do well after you left the service."

My transition from the Air Force looked successful. Yet in the privacy of my commute, in the evenings at home or during my lunch break, it looked anything but. No one saw my uncontrollable sobbing, how unsure and alone I felt, or how scared I was of what was to come.

With 20 years of service, I left the Air Force as an E-9 with a top-secret clearance, a large Rolodex of reliable professional contacts, a master's degree and a couple of professional certifications. I took advantage of a long list of transition and employment services and thought I was well-prepared for the transition. I quickly landed my first post-service job as a managing director with a health care firm.

I didn't tell a soul about my struggles. I held all of those frightening emotions close to me because I thought I was alone in my journey. I had no idea what was happening to me.

I've since learned from other female veterans that I am far from alone in my struggles. Instead, the transition journey for female vets is uniquely difficult. But for all its challenges, it's rarely talked about or recognized outside our own circles.

There are a few notable areas where women veterans say their transition challenges are unique:

  • Female veterans feel they become invisible when they leave service. Often, they don't self-identify as a veteran. We must find a way to understand this phenomenon at a deeper level.
  • Military service in and of itself de-feminizes women and is a contrary experience in cultural norms. When those same women return to civilian status, there is a myriad of unexpected challenges associated with this deeply psychological transformation.
  • A stark lack of peer support post-transition is often noted by female veterans. They report not feeling accepted by civilian women, and they struggle with finding a group of peers in which they feel supported and encouraged.

As the number of female service members, and thus the number of women veterans, moves toward a significant increase, we must find a way to make the transition space more comfortable to navigate.

Personal experience convinces me that, as a community, we need to understand more about the transition experiences of female veterans if we are going to make any significant strides in this area.

To tackle this problem, I've developed a survey, in partnership with Syracuse University, aimed at understanding women's experiences as they leave military service. In October, the findings will be shared in Dallas at the George W. Bush Institute with influencers in the areas of veteran policy, programming, mentorship and employment partners who can help us shape the post-service narrative for female veterans.

Since first sharing the survey in September, the feedback has been overwhelming. Within a mere five days of sharing the survey with a small, personal network, there were over 100 responses. Seven days later, the number was over 300. More importantly, female veterans from all over the country began reaching out to me in ways I never, ever expected.

If we are going to be successful in changing the narrative for female veterans, we -- women veterans -- have to do the work of engaging key stakeholders in higher education, employment, and nonprofit and transition services so they understand our unique experiences. They must become a voice in solving this with us, not for us. And, frankly, we need people other than just female veterans talking about it.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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