Today I had the opportunity—or rather was assigned the opportunity—to attend an event geared towards soldiers who are transitioning, preparing to transition, or thinking about transitioning out of the military. After attending the week-long transition workshop last week, I wasn’t sure if I would gain any insight from a one-day affair that shoe-horned in speeches, a panel discussion, a quick lunch out of green Mermite containers (oh yeah, if you’ve served, you know what I’m talking about), and then a job fair hall crammed with about 20 or so local businesses.
I admit, it was kind of fun to get out of the office, although the chairs were plastic and uncomfortable, and my little passenger decided to kick up a storm as we were sitting there. We also arrived an hour and a half early, which breaks some sort of Army record, I’m sure. But, I was hoping for some insight, and when the panel discussion began, I found it.
Up on the stage, a gentleman introduced the panel participants. There were some from USAA and other businesses, but the one thing I noticed was that all the veterans were male. The only female on the panel was a military spouse. This struck me as interesting, given that I’ve been spending time working on my own transition and writing articles for Task and Purpose on women veterans doing really cool things in the civilian world. Something that Jennifer Kready, one of the ladies I interviewed for that article, said came back to me as I listened to the panel discussion, namely that women veterans are not easily identifiable.
From my own experience as a veteran, I also know that much of the civilian world has a certain stereotype of the military, and that particular worldview does not necessarily know how to incorporate the idea of the woman veteran. A big guy with a crew cut talking about serving overseas is one thing—a woman in a sleek pantsuit with a pair of fashionable shoes is an invitation to cognitive dissonance.
This is not to say that all employers don’t understand the full capacity of what women do in the military. It is simply to say that civilian America is still learning that we are more than nurses, radio operators, or military spouses.
I had a good discussion over lunch with some of the soldiers I came to the event with. We talked about the fact that women veterans can sometimes be an invisible population, and our conversation ranged from how to educate civilians as to the new way of things, to being handed a Ladies Auxiliary application at the VFW (totally happened), to why society still puts a stigma on men who support their wives’ careers by assuming many of the home duties.
And then, because I can never keep my mouth shut, we went inside, found some of the ladies who were there with the Department of Labor, and expressed our concerns that the panel did not include one single female veteran. We were polite, and it seemed that they were receptive to our feedback. I offered my business card if there were any future events, and we moved on to the next part of the event.
For me, I’m not worried about being invisible. I can stand up and speak up and lean in and do those things that make me not so unnoticed. But I do feel it is important for women servicemembers to acknowledge and negotiate some of the issues of civilian perspectives on women veterans, and understand how they might affect the transition process. One way is to speak up at these sorts of events. The other way is for women veterans to become less invisible, in whichever way works for them. And then, let’s see where it goes.