“I was proud to serve my country,” one woman Veteran told me. “Now, I just want to put my service behind me and move on with my life, but experiences I had while in the military keep getting in the way.”
On this Veteran’s Day, we commemorate all Veterans who served honorably in defense of the USA and in the freedoms we all share as citizens. Yet on this day, not all Veterans feel commemorated, or even recognized, in fact they feel invisible. Many women Veterans, now over two million and growing, who should be able to stand tall and be recognized for their service, can feel invisible on the very day set aside to honor them. There can be a career’s worth of experience while in the military and a lifetime’s worth of society’s indifference to their service hanging over the day. For countless women Veterans, overall, there is an internal struggle to square their feelings of pride for serving with their negative experiences while serving because they were female. That struggle becomes more acute and real on this day and for many, more visceral.
Writes Center for Women Veterans, “[women Veterans] … continue to face significant barriers and challenges in accessing necessary health care and other services, while experiencing a lack of recognition. Women veterans are not only overlooked by those around them, but frequently struggle to consider themselves Veterans.”
Serving one’s country honorably is one of the most patriotic and selfless of acts we as Americans can do. The military has always been considered a time honored and hallowed institution distinct from external pressures and resistant to change. Yet, in American history, because of the mission, the numbers who serve and the necessity of readiness, the US military as an institution has been in some ways prompted to incorporate the more lasting social and cultural currents of changes in our society. These changes include racial integration, women serving in the military, and women serving in combat, don’t ask, don’t tell and now welcoming to all Americans. The US military, of all Federal agencies, certainly reflects in its service members, the broader identity makeup of our country. Above all else, that decision to serve and what it means should come with equal recognition, accolades and the rights and privileges for all that served from peers and the communities.
Gender bias impacts women in many facets of their lives, affecting their professional careers, wages, expectations, advancements, and other areas while women deal with much higher percentages of workplace harassment and discrimination. That gender bias exists in the military where women also experience higher percentages of military sexual trauma and the persistent physical, mental, and emotional effects long after leaving the military then their male counterparts. When leaving the military, gender bias follows women service members through transition and reintegration back into society.
There are social spaces where being a Veteran brings “thank you for your service,” or Veterans are accorded special recognition by community groups or businesses, and you can see the bias in action. They don’t fit society’s image of Veteran. Said a women Veteran in a 2021 USA Today article, “you kind of put the veteran side to the side because you don’t fit the normal criteria … I’d say that a lot of people don’t recognize you as a veteran overall.”
These instances are not rare, each feels like a tiny paper cut. After a while, it is just adding insult to the injuries that manyalready live with; better yet why fight it, fade to invisible. This “identity crisis” begins for women Veterans out the transition gate. The identity “Veteran” folds in all their experiences, loading down what should be an identity to embrace. Another women Veteran said, “If you’re looking at things and being depicted a certain way and you’re like, ‘that’s not me,’ then that gets internalized over time.”
Situations like asking if the car with the Veteran license plate is a woman Veteran’s husband, watching a male Veteran get a Veteran discount at a hardware store, then later, having to produce a Veteran card to prove her status, or standing next to her children at the “bring a Veteran to class day” and having the photographer taking photos of the children who brought a Vet ask if she was standing in for her husband, while she was actually wearing a shirt with Veteran on it, pepper their lives. Even more so in Veteran specific contexts, such as the VAClinic, being asked if she was a Veteran’s wife or daughter do these situations leave hurt – countless tiny paper cuts.
I can only imagine what that feels like, having served, and then being a Veteran and a survivor, and having the legitimacy of Veteran ignored or questioned, no matter how unconscious or covert the intent. You fight for that legitimacy and equality while in the military. Said ReAnn Pae, former Army Captain, “I was in combat for two years total, doing the same thing that men around me were doing, and held to the same standards, and oftentimes exceeding those standards, but it felt like I needed to work that much harder to be perceived half as equal or half as good.”
And then you have to do it out of the military too?
Visibility through Community
Women’s Veteran Day is observed on June 12, and although not a National Day of Recognition, several states now recognize it through legislation or proclamation, starting in 2008 with the New York State Assembly. With some variation in wording and vehicle of presentation, the Day is to “… honor the work of women in the United States Armed Forces and recognize the unique challenges that they have faced.”
In 2017, the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs (ODVA) created the “I Am Not Invisible” traveling photo exhibit to “raise awareness and visibility of the women as veterans in Oregon.” The seed of this exhibit was planted from women Veterans meeting with Portland State University’s Veterans Affairs Office who said they felt invisible. Now in its 6th year, the exhibit has crisscrossed the country and was displayed in the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington, DC.
There are a multitude of organizations, many of them online and non-profits, who work to provide person, professional and life support to women Veterans while also acting to create and sustain a sense of community. “There need to be more thoughtful spaces for women veterans — spaces that are authentic and not tokenizing. Lindsay Gargotto, the Military and Veteran Services director at Bellarmine University said. “We just need to be more open as a community to understanding that.”
Being recognized as a Veteran on Veteran’s Day, or any other day, shouldn’t be that hard, especially if you are a Veteran.Recognizing and understanding the reality of women Veteranson Veteran’s Day, or any other day, is the least we can do as a community and as a nation. Since 2016, On November 11, for two minutes at 2:11, allowing all 50 states to take part, theVeterans Day Moment of Silence calls for recognition and reflection on the service and sacrifice of all Veterans past and present.
So today, while I am outside raking leaves, I will set my cell phone alarm for 2:11. I will stop raking, and think of my father, no longer living and my brother, both Army Veterans and honor their service. That might take up the two minutes, but starting today, I will engage in the Veterans Day extended Moment of Silence and in my head and heard recognize the over two million women Veterans who have served our country, especially the many women Veterans I have come to knowthrough our work at Pamlico Rose and Rose Haven Center of Healing. That is the least I can do.