When I was a Marine, I remember being told I should never walk around our base in Iraq alone. Would you believe that it didn’t even seem strange at the time?
Today, I’m a public health researcher. I try to figure out how to make the process of transitioning from solider to civilian easier for military women. It is a job I care about deeply because I personally recognize the health issues that come along with transition struggles. I believe that the biggest barrier to making it less of a struggle is that women veterans are invisible.
We joke in the Marine Corps about “drinking the Kool-Aid,” which simply means thoroughly embracing the culture and lifestyle. Everything is intense, and we are demanding of one another and ourselves. This is especially true for women. We make up only about 7% of the Marines (link is external). Because there are so few of us, one represents all, and the standards we are held to are brutal. We cannot make mistakes.
When it was time to leave active duty and go back to school and become what I considered “a normal woman” again, I thought it would be a breeze.
When I left the Marine Corps, I had a hard time carving a new identity for myself. I got in my own way some of the time. I was young. I was intense. I pushed myself hard and knew how to press the gas but never the brake. This serves a lot of us well for a period of time. But what happens when you never turn the intensity off?
I didn’t know where to turn for a new social support system outside the active duty military. I didn’t feel that I fit in anywhere, particularly in the veteran community. I wasn’t going to tell jokes with the older vets at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars bar. Civilian settings didn’t feel any better — I didn’t have much in common with the women in local women’s organizations.
Dr. Kate Hendricks Thomas is a professor of public health at Charleston Southern University and a veteran of the United States Marine Corps. Read a portion of her blog, Impacts of Invisibility on Military Veteran Women, at WomensHealth.gov.