It has been nearly five years since I left the Army and still my time in the service is fresh in my mind. I think about my deployments every single day without fail. I have friends and family, responsibilities and passions that keep me moving, but the time I spent in the Army and in Iraq are what continue to define me.
Many current and former service members feel the same way. The act of participating in war casts a shadow over everything else in life. Facing high stress and danger for so long makes it tremendously difficult to leave the military and rejoin civilian society. Day-to-day concerns seem trivial compared to the life or death urgency of military situations. When I first came home, I would become furious at how easily everyone in this country can carry on virtually ignoring the fact that we are at war.
I worked as a server as I used my GI Bill benefits to earn a bachelor's degree in English Communication, but after graduating with honors, I could not find a job in my field. After a year of looking for meaningful employment, I enrolled in graduate school largely out of fear that my degree would become obsolete before I could even get a shot at any real work experience. The fact that women veterans are among the highest unemployed populations leaves me with questions about whether my service is continuing to hurt me in ways I cannot even see.
I've struggled with processing my experiences as a woman in the military. Five years later, I am just beginning to seek help for Military Sexual Trauma (MST), a rape that I could not admit to myself let alone report to authorities. My acquiescence and perpetuation of victim blaming, so rampant in the military, kept me in denial about what I had suffered. I think often of women I knew in similar situations who I would not reach out to for fear of casting myself in the lot of weak women -- for that, I am full of regret.
Being a woman in the military is complicated and it is arduous. Everything you do is related back to your womanhood. To be accepted you must excel at all physical and work related tasks, ignore boatloads of harassment, and walk that fine line to avoid being cast into one of the two major categories: bitch and whore. The best that a woman in the military can hope for is to be considered one of the boys. Women face the same dangers and hardships as men; the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts have seen more and more female soldiers exposed to combat. On top of that, women are raped and sexually assaulted by their fellow service members at appalling rates, all the while being told that our sacrifices are not as great as our male counterparts.
The hardest part about leaving the military is trying to fit into a society that doesn't understand or seem to care much for veterans. It is hard to come to grips with the clash between the ideal of "support the troops" and the reality of isolation from society. I find myself wondering what it is that the U.S. and its citizens owe service members; what is a fair price for the majority to remain virtually unaffected while a small minority bares the brunt of these wars?
The answer is confounded by the fact that these days most Americans oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The water gets even muddier when we consider the shame of Abu Ghraib and the Afghanistan "kill teams" which have shown us all some of the most shocking and truly saddening images of violence and dehumanization our military has cultivated.
I can't blame those who have no love for the military or veterans. Had I not served beside so many reputable men and women who honestly believed that they were doing their country a service, I might not either. But you will not hear me argue that all veterans are heroes, that is a lie that has stolen too many lives. Some may hear that as blasphemy, but I say the very least this country owes its men and women of the armed forces is the truth.
It is far easier to say our troops are heroes than it is to have an honest dialog about what service means. It is easier to call troops heroes than to ask what commitment we as a nation have to those who fight in our name or to question whether service members are fighting in our name if we as citizens have no say in the matter. Hero is a word that takes away responsibility from all parties and wraps it up in a lofty idea that rarely exists. The label of hero is a bogus consolation prize and a nasty cover-up.
Even though I'm grateful for the thought, when a stranger thanks me for my service I feel my stomach turning. Although I treated those who I encountered with respect and dignity, I am still riddled with guilt for my participation in the unjust war in Iraq. On the other hand, cheesy patriotic songs bring me to tears in a heartbeat and I still feel a sense of pride for sacrificing what most will not in order to serve my country. What I'm saying is it's complicated. There is no quick fix or "one size fits all" solution to the problems that veterans are facing.
After 10 years of war, service members need relief and they deserve the right to heal. Veterans need honesty, patience, physical and mental health care, and access to everything that was promised them when they enlisted. They need jobs, friends and outlets for creative expression. They need love, support and families to come home to. I need these things, we all do. We do not need to be patronized or blamed for our government's mistakes.
Five years have come and gone, yet every day I think of the Army. I think of Iraq. These wars rage on and I am just one of the millions who have been affected first-hand by these wars, please don't be one of the millions who doesn't give them a second thought.
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