Women veterans are part of the national conversation as never before. This topicality is partially thanks to the fact that the Pentagon has lifted its official ban on women in combat.
Credit also goes to the success of the Oscar-nominated film The Invisible War, which shone a harsh spotlight on the underreported problem of sexual assault in the military. And the women veterans organization Grace After Fire has received national media attention for its peer support programs.
But the individual stories of women veterans are the most powerful indicators of a larger truth: Women veterans experience all the same issues as male veterans, but they also face difficulties specific to their gender.
In honor of Women Veterans Month -- and Women’s History Month -- TakePart spoke to three women vets about their transitions from life overseas to life back at home.
The antipsychotic medication finally helped Brandi remember her nightmares.
Brandi, 30, lives in her hometown of Lincoln, Indiana. She joined the National Guard when she was 17. A young wife and mother, she deployed to Iraq in May 2007 and returned home in May 2008. She tells TakePart, “I had missed out on a whole year of my daughter’s life. That is something that I will never get back, but I try to make up for it every day of her life…it’s very hard…to leave and return to children that have changed so much.”
Upon her return, Brandi divorced her husband of five years. She says, “Not long after leaving for Iraq, I found out he was cheating. This is pretty common with many married soldiers. I suppose better now than in 20 years.”
Thankfully, she has a family she calls “very supportive.”
“Most of my family never really asked me what happened while I was in Iraq,” Brandi says. “I am very grateful for that. They let me tell them stories as I was ready. They were there to listen and not cast any judgments.”
She registered with the VA hospital. Previously, her only prescription was for birth control. Suddenly she found herself with five prescriptions for different medications.
Like many soldiers, Brandi came back from war with a major sleep problem. After she participated in a sleep study, the doctors informed her that she woke up an average of 27 times per hour during the night. She could never remember any of it -- all she knew was that she started each day exhausted. The doctors chalked it up to old-fashioned insomnia and prescribed sleeping pills. The pills didn’t help.
“Try going four years without sleeping,” Brandi tells TakePart. “It’s hell.”
Four years after she returned from war, Brandi was finally diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. A doctor took her off the ineffective sleeping aids and instead gave her an antipsychotic.
“It made me sleep, but it also showed why I [hadn’t been] sleeping,” Brandi said. “When sleeping, I would have nightmares of being in a war zone.”
Life as a Marine wasn’t exactly a heroine’s journey for Vanasa.
Vanasa, 42, of Riverton, Utah, joined the Marine Corps when she was 19. She served for two years in Okinawa, Japan, during Desert Storm, then was sent to Camp Pendleton in California. At the end of her service, she was given an “other than honorable” discharge and went to college without the benefit of the GI Bill. By the time she graduated college, she was able to successfully appeal and have her discharge changed to “honorable.” Unfortunately, her newly reinstated GI Bill benefits did not apply to the $20,000 in student loans she had already accrued.
Vanasa delayed motherhood in exchange for a military career and a degree. She said, “We always have the time clock ticking trying to get a job and college in before [having] kids. After Marine Corps and college, I was 30 and ready to start a family; so an advanced degree wasn’t really an option. I had one kid at 33 and one at 38. Now I am 42 with a three-year-old, wondering what’s going to happen when I rejoin the workforce.”
She says she doesn’t regret her two decades of service, but tells TakePart that “in the two decades since I have served, there have been very few instances where it has benefited me tangibly at all. I am a divorced mom of two who is unemployed and uninsured with a student loan debt. Supposedly, there are programs out there, but I don’t know where to begin and what are worthwhile pursuits.”
War left an invisible mark on Michele.
Michele is 32 and lives in Fayetteville, North Carolina. She joined the Navy when she was 19, in December 2000. She traveled everywhere from Thailand to Iraq, which she says was “an insane asylum” during her time there in 2005 and 2006. By the time she left in 2008, she had been deployed six times. As a lesbian, she had become “disenfranchised” with the military and especially the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.
Her mother thought Michele came home with PTSD; Michele said that just might be true.
She tells TakePart, “After getting out, I was lost, but I was lucky to have a family that was supportive for the most part. I did not file with the VA, because I heard all horror stories and there were so many people coming back with half a brain and no legs not getting proper VA care. What were they going to do for me, a woman vet who was not brandishing a Purple Heart or visible scars? As the last decade can show, not much.”
The vet still struggles with emotional issues related to her time in the military. She says, “It is probably why [my mother] allowed me to get a dog. My mom is not a dog person. She… figured it would help.” Michele’s chocolate lab is named Jane.
Michele tells TakePart that military training on re-acclimating to society after deployment “is complete bullshit…. They never tell you that the world is different overall and sometimes people don’t give a damn what you did ‘over there’ as a contractor or a military member.”