Recently, I had an epiphany. In the entirety of my time working in the student veteran realm I’ve only met one female veteran with whom I’ve spent time. I’m surrounded by men at every veteran event I attend, and when my significant other (who is not a veteran) gets thanked for “his service”, I stand there with a fake smile plastered on my face and a fire igniting in my chest. I realized that I need some female veteran friends who truly understand this struggle. The problem? Finding women who have served feels like finding a unicorn, and finding someone I could identify with regarding some of the most significant struggles I’ve faced hasn’t really happened up to this point in my life. I shouldn’t say it hasn’t ever happened. In fact, my best friend was the only other female in my company on my COP with me overseas, so she understands. But our experiences were very different as well, and the strain of re-integrating into society actually caused us to despise each other for a good 3-year span. So, where are all the women? This is the question I want to answer. I want to find these beautiful warriors and hear their story.
Organically, the conversation of my frustration led to the idea of using The Facing Project as a platform to tell the stories of woman veterans. I am incredibly excited about this opportunity, but as I began my marketing strategy an interesting thing happened. It took me weeks to find the appropriate words to talk about the project…I felt too close to the topic. It seems silly, because this project is something I find to be imperative to the understanding of the veteran community as a whole. I also know how many women fall by the wayside because they want to fly under the radar. However, I would type phrases like “come contribute your voice and help build a community of women who have been silenced for too long,” or “your voice is important and often overshadowed, come share your story!” and immediately over-analyze what I was writing. I found myself questioning how to phrase this sort of “call to arms” without offending male veterans. It seems like I have to exercise caution in how “overly-feminist” I seem.
I can just hear them saying “Oh, there’s another female fobbit (term for people who aren’t out on the front lines of combat) trying to get her voice heard about how hard her life was with a bunch of men,” or “there’s another woman who probably had men carry all of her things and thinks her life is too hard,” or “this is why females shouldn’t be in combat, they can’t handle it,” or perhaps “What’s your story, how many dudes you slept with overseas? How hard could your life have been?” or maybe “I never had a problem with women serving with me, so why am I being attacked?” I know that many veteran men do support women who served, but the overwhelming majority of men who served act suspect when I introduce myself. Not only am I a female, but I was in the National Guard; to any grunt I am automatically disregarded until I validate my position and explain to them what my service entailed. I receive respect once I have verified that I deserve it; that everything wasn’t just handed to me.
This is my mindset, and it’s a hard one to get out of. So, as I’m sitting here trying to create a public flyer promoting this beautiful and exciting project, I am still stuck in my own head. I’m trying to appeal to the women like me, who years ago would have responded the same way as the quoted language from men above. I also want to ensure that if my name is on the flyer I’m not pushing away the male veteran population who are also part of my community. As a female in the military we are conditioned to think a particular way. If we want to integrate and be accepted by our male counterparts, leadership, etc. we must take on a very particular persona. We are tough, hard to offend, and we are willing to do whatever it takes to prove we deserve to be in the position we are in. It takes very little to be labeled as the weak link and there are no such things as slip ups. It’s very hard to get out of this frame of mind when re-integrating back into society. I know very well that I should advocate for myself and tell all of those who don’t support me (without having to hear verbal confirmation of my active participation in the war and service) to go to hell. But it’s so hard, because I fought for my ability to validate my badassery. I worked incredibly hard, too hard to be written off. The result of this is that I find myself with a flyer, unable to promote my own project appropriately, because I don’t want to be the weak link, the victim, or “that girl.”
I am confident I am not alone in this narrative, which is why this Facing Project we’ve named “Sisters in Arms” is so important. Being a female veteran isn’t just about how strong we are physically, or just about stories of sexual assault, although these are important topics of discussion. Its about the lasting impact of our service as a whole, on our psyche and on how we approach and embrace our identity not only as veterans in society but as veterans within a male-dominant veteran community. It’s imperative that the men who have served also understand this because their voices are much louder than ours, and if they can help promote and validate our time in service then maybe we will all feel more comfortable sharing our stories with the rest of the world. As I navigate this project I have found myself regressing to where I started years ago, hiding my identity and avoiding veteran events as a whole. But I always come back to the importance of this project not only for myself but for all the other wonderful women warriors out there. The first step is finding the right words, and consequently, the women to help me share this story.