American women have a long tradition of service in the armed forces, and those numbers have increased significantly in the last decade. Currently, nearly 3% of all front-line troops are comprised of enlisted female personnel, and around 17% of active duty military, across all branches of service, are women. The heartfelt stories of moms, sweethearts and daughters coming home abound, but after the cameras stop rolling and the homecoming tears have been dried, what’s often left is a solitary woman, standing on her own, unable to move forward or find a job. The travails of returning vets are well-documented, and many city streets are littered with those looking for work or a hot meal. Female vets, who currently number close to two million, may have it even tougher than their male counterparts. One such veteran is Donna (who asked for her last name to be withheld), a Denver-based, single mom, whose struggles lasted far longer than her deployment did. This is her story.
Combating a New Kind of Fear
“When I left the Air Force I came home to a divorce and three small daughters needing financial support. I wanted to go to college and find a job. I had been told that potential employers were not allowed to ask if I suffered from any issues because of my military service, that it was illegal for them to ask, but I got asked that question all the time on interviews,” says Donna, who could not find a job. “It was ‘Thank you for your service and see ya,’ every interview I had. After six years in the military, Donna’s service ended in 1984. She suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, but during her years of service in the Air Force, PTSD was not discussed or acknowledged, either within the military or at home. “I could not find a job. Air Force women served in a non-traditional field and companies did not want to hire any of us. They did not understand how they could use our skills,” she adds.
Compounding Donna’s problem was her escalating age and the misconceptions that the civilian world seemed to have of returning veterans. “It is a mentality within our society, that people are afraid of what they don’t know. Employers would look at Hollywood movies and think all vets are winos. And, it got harder the older I got,” says Donna, who was unable to land a job utilizing her high level of expertise. “I was a motivational speaker and corporate trainer before my years in the Air Force, but it was like those skills did not even register. I could not get hired and all I wanted was a stable life, but according to corporate America, I was disposable,” says Donna, who ultimately became homeless as well as chronically unemployed. Now living in a Denver shelter, Donna found support, both emotional and financial, through her local chapter of Volunteers of America, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting returning veterans get back on their feet and contribute to society.
A Pay Check and a Flicker of Hope
Through Volunteers of America, Donna started to experience the type of teamwork and respect she had come to rely upon in the Air Force. Meaningful employment continued to elude her, but she learned that any job can be better than no job. Now working for a national retail chain, Donna receives only about a third of the wages she was used to before, but will be leaving the shelter system this year. She has also been able to rekindle a relationship with the little girls she left behind, now grown. “People are damaged by their service in the military, but that does not mean they can’t learn and overcome the issues they faced,” says Donna, who does not regret her years of service. “Vets are able to reintegrate into the civilian world, but only when prejudice against them and misconceptions about them go away. Lip service does no one any good, but jobs do,” she adds.
Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.