As Women's History Month continues, some of the least-recognized women are those who serve or have served in the military. Since women have until very recently accounted for only a tiny fraction of servicemembers and veterans, and since women have not officially been in combat positions (even when they work in combat zones), many people -- including many of these women themselves -- have not even been aware that they are considered "veterans." Questionnaires created by people who want to know if women are veterans are now being altered, so that instead of asking, "Are you a veteran?" the question reads, "Have you ever served in the military?" because if the answer to the latter is "yes," the person is a veteran.
As increasing numbers of women join the military and even go into combat zones, even if not there as official combat troops, the sexism that pervades our entire society helps shape what happens to them. This can range from sexist assumptions and comments to sexual harassment to military sexual assault. One woman said she was welcomed into the military by another woman who had been in for awhile with the words, "Congratulations: Now you are either a slut or a dyke." Women often report avoiding intake of any liquid after late afternoon, because if they have to get up to walk out to use a latrine in the dark, they are in danger of being raped by people in their own units. The military and the Department of Veterans Affairs are working to identify the needs of military women and women veterans and have taken many important steps, but they know that many more changes are needed. Terrific organizations like the Service Women's Action Network (servicewomen.org) are doing crucial education and advocacy work.
In the years since I started listening to the stories of military veterans, many women and men have used the rucksack metaphor, saying, "The burdens of what I experienced in the military and the difficulties when returning home have been like heavy rocks in a rucksack I have carried. Having someone listen to my story has been like having some of those rocks lifted out." Because of differences in the ways that men and women tend to be socialized, veterans sometimes avoid telling their stories to civilians for somewhat different reasons. Male veterans are likely to be reluctant to talk with civilians about their war and home-coming experiences in part because they feel they men are not supposed to be upset, are supposed to tough out and get through whatever emotional pain and moral anguish they have endured. Women who have served in the military are often reluctant to talk partly because they fear that if they talk about their pain and anguish, they risk confirming the belief that women should not be allowed to join the military, but if they have been affected by the usual socialization imposed on women, they also believe that their job is to help others who suffer, to be the nurturer, not the one who needs or asks for support or even understanding.
Some months after my book about veterans appeared last spring, a woman named Kari Granger, herself a veteran, wrote to me. After learning about my work and my advocacy of having civilians just listen to veterans' stories, she wrote to tell me about a program that she had created for women who have been in the military, because, she said, much of what they do in her program's three-day retreats is what she had realized is "an elaborate form of listening."
What Granger and her associates (http://www.sunergosllc.com) address in part is the wrench, the disorientation involved in going from military culture to the civilian world, and this happens whether or not the person was in a combat zone during military service, so vastly different are the two cultures. Of course, if they were in combat zones, that adds a whole host of other kinds of feelings and kinds of disorientation and fragmentation. Many women who leave the military struggle, as do men in somewhat similar and somewhat different ways, with matters of identity, of who they were in the military and who they will be now, of what and how to use what they have done and been and learned to move forward into a meaningful, rewarding future. Granger's program, "Leading with Resiliency and Grace," has included participants who are active duty, reserve, and retired military women, as well as spouses of servicemembers, ranging in age from 21 to 60. According to a report from the first such retreat, held last November in Washington, D.C., the women who attended experienced profound relief just having that much time to attend to the matters with which they had been grappling, to break down the isolation in which so many had struggled, to feel supported, and to have the chance to tell their stories from the past and present and thus to turn toward their future and considering how to shape it.
The importance of having a time and place for such matters is reflected in these comments from participants:
--"All of the interactions gave us a safe environment to let down our walls and be courageous."
--"A class of only women was the most important part; it wouldn't be the same if men were here."
-- "I am not alone — my feelings, perspectives and experiences are recognized as valid by a group of my peers and contemporaries."
The words of these women remind us that human connection and respectful listening make us stronger, more confident, more fulfilled. And in a still-misogynist society, the need for women sometimes to be in the company solely of other women continues. This does not mean, of course, that men are incapable of connection or that they cannot be supportive and respectful toward women, because many certainly are. But it means that especially for women who have worked and lived where they are in the minority and where sex-role stereotypes can pack an especially powerful wallop, these kinds of spaces for safety, support, insight, and inspiration in all-women settings essential. Male veterans have long known how this kind of thing can help, as the remarkable Shad Meshad, a Vietnam veteran and social worker who spearheaded the post-Vietnam creation of gathering places for veterans to talk with each other, showed. Meshad, who now heads the National Veterans Foundation (www.nvf.org), told me that, wanting to emphasize how normal is suffering after being at war and trying to negotiate the return home, he purposely (and importantly, I would add) chose to call those gatherings not "group therapy" but rather "rap sessions." So there we have it again -- the importance of speaking one