I witnessed some terrible things in the summer of 2009, in the thick of war in southern Afghanistan. The war changed me forever, and I carry it with me every day. That makes me no different than any other Marine deployed there, except that I am a woman. But this really isn’t about being a woman in combat; it’s about the woman I am now that I’m home.
I was a military journalist, recording the unvarnished stories of war with my video camera. When necessary, I dropped my camera to pick up my rifle to protect myself and those to my left and right. When I came back from Afghanistan, first to my assignment at the Pentagon and later to civilian life, nobody was there to help me make the journey back to normalcy. I had no family nearby, only a handful of friends and virtually no one who could relate to my experience.
For about a year, I couldn’t bring myself to sleep in my own bed. It brought me nothing but nightmares. My short-term memory was nearly nonexistent. It was as if the space in my brain needed to navigate daily life was completely overloaded, filled with the memories and images of deployment. Just to complete simple tasks, like turning in reports on time or doing laundry, I relied on a system of sticky note reminders all over my apartment and office.
My relationships suffered, which is all too common for veterans. I couldn’t talk to my parents or fiancé about what I had experienced. They just knew I had changed, and not for the better. I couldn’t talk to my big brother, a fellow Marine. I thought it must feel emasculating for him because his little sister had gone to combat and he had not. (Mostly, though, I wanted him to be proud of me, and I was ashamed that maybe I wasn’t tough enough to handle it.) To this day, like so many other veterans, I still see the faces of the devastatingly injured and the flag-draped caskets being prepared for the final journey home.
Coming home from Afghanistan was bittersweet. I was thrilled to be home but unsure of how to move forward. Now that I’m out of the service, aided by the salve of time, things are better. But I’m not the same, and it’s not always good. The person (and the Marine) I was before my deployment was left back in Afghanistan.
Was all this made harder because I’m a woman? Probably not. But I can say for certain it’s different. For example, there are support groups for the wives and significant others of male service members. My fiancé is a police officer but has never served in the military. He has nowhere to turn to help him deal with his own feelings about having a wife-to-be who went to war. There’s no one to give him advice about nightmares and short tempers, and, frankly, I’m not even sure I know what to tell him. I really wish there was a way for him to understand what I went through and what I feel. But mostly, we just don’t talk about it.
Most active-duty military spouse programs are still geared towards women. My fiancé will have no point of reference and no real community support to know what to expect. The VA’s Center for Women Veterans website has a section dedicated to spouses and family members, but the content is limited mostly to financial benefits and burial requirements. We need help with the in-between and the everyday.
A recent study by the organization I now work for, DAV (Disabled American Veterans), found that the military and Department of Veterans Affairs don’t do a very good job of helping women transition home. When I left the service, I filled out the forms, hung up the uniform and that was it. Nobody ever followed up with me to see how I was doing, not even for my “mandatory” post-deployment health reassessment. I’ve gone to VA for some services, but in truth had always felt unsure about a system designed to meet men’s physical and mental health needs. I was shocked and pleasantly surprised when the doctor informed me about specialized services available for women, but I know there’s a long way to go before VA is able to care for my sisters as well as it does the men who served.
The VA has recently launched their Women Veterans Call Center (1-855-VA-WOMEN), which I have personally used and found extremely helpful. They linked me with my local Vet Center, where I can seek both individual and family counseling. This may turn out to be exactly what we need. It’s great that these resources exist, but they need much better promotion. If women don’t know they’re available, how can they use them?
For the first time, America sent thousands of women to war and we are fully expected to return to our roles as daughters, sisters, wives and mothers, with little — if any — help. In a few months, I will take on a new role — that of a wife. As I stand poised to walk down the aisle, dressed in the most beautiful wedding gown I’ve ever seen, I know without a doubt that I will see the faces of a few young men and women I knew whose lives were cut short in Afghanistan. And while I will be thrilled to be marking a milestone in my life, I know I’ll be thinking that they will never have a wedding day of their own. That’s probably not the wedding experience my mom and dad had envisioned for their little girl.
Their little girl who grew up and went to war.