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Who Am I, Really?: The Identity Crisis of the Woman Veteran Returning Home

To the typical American woman in her twenties, we are practically men. To the typical male soldier, we are practically girls. As a result, we find ourselves unable to fully adopt either identity.

I just read Raul Felix’s article about the division of Generation Y (which is drawn, the author asserts, between those who are Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, and those who aren’t), and although I thought Felix made some extremely salient points, I am of the opinion that another, more specific division needs to be made. I’m referring to the particularly awkward division between women veterans and women who have never been in the military – the division that leads to women like me getting out of the Army and finding it nearly impossible to relate to 99% of other American women. You might think that’s an exaggeration, but when one considers that only 1% of Americans serve in the U.S. military at any given time, and that an even smaller percentage of us are women, it seems fairly accurate.

Yes, male veterans can and do also have a difficult time transitioning, but they have a distinct social advantage over us women – hyper-masculine men in American society are glorified, while women who proudly display what have come to be known as masculine traits are seen as oddities. In other words, the very traits we women adopted (often in an effort to be accepted, and thus left alone, as “one of the guys”) in the military are making it more difficult for us than for our male counterparts to re-enter an America that still, amazingly, expects us to embody the same type of femininity as women who have never taken cover behind a blast wall.

On the flip side, we are never fully accepted as service members by the males in our military units, either. Unless we are able to adopt the same traits as our male counterparts, we are looked down upon as weak, incompetent, less-than. So in the military, we are physically fit, not so we can look good in our jeans, but so we can ace our physical fitness tests and thus not be considered weak links. We drink excessively, not because we are irresponsible young students, but because the people we drink with are usually men in our units who also drink excessively, and we want them to see us as equals. We make rude jokes, not because we really want to be rude, but because we’ve been desensitized by a military culture in which those jokes are considered normal. I could go on, but I think you understand – to the typical American woman in her twenties, we are practically men. To the typical male soldier, we are practically girls. As a result, we find ourselves unable to fully adopt either identity.

When I finished my second deployment to Iraq, I arrived home with three weeks to get all my discharge paperwork in order. This meant that less than a month after returning from a year living in a combat zone, I would be rejoining the “civilian world” – no more uniforms, no more chow hall food, no more loudspeakers booming “INCOMING, INCOMING” seconds after a rocket attack. I had to recalibrate my brain, so that every time I heard the word “recalibrate,” I would no longer instinctually associate it with my M16A-2 assault rifle. I had to relearn how to “do” my hair instead of just putting it in a bun. I had to – shudder – carry a purse, instead of just using my uniform’s cargo pockets. I was eager to get on to what I considered my “real” life, but at the same time, it was a daunting process. Granted, I had less time for it than is usually allotted (six months is the norm), but as I’d been deployed under the stop-loss policy, otherwise known as the backdoor draft, my situation was not unlike that of many soldiers similarly kept in the military past the end date of their original active-duty contract. And like those other soldiers, I was pushed out of the military’s nest as soon as I was no longer needed. I was free, as many of us women soldiers liked to say, to actually be a woman again.

But the reality we had to face was that most of us had never really known what it was like to be women in the civilian world in the first place. We had entered the military as girls – still teenagers, many of us – and had been trained to be soldiers, to leave as much of our femininity at the door as we possibly could. So when we left the military as adults, there was no woman to be “again” – we were starting from scratch. And we were entering a world of women who didn’t understand us, and whom we definitely didn’t understand.

The worst part for me, though, has not been the inability to relate to civilian women, although that was a huge challenge. The worst part has been that, as a female veteran, I am forced to toggle between my identity as a veteran and my identity as a woman depending on the social situation. Men rarely experience this conflict, as their veteran status usually serves to elevate their position in the social hierarchy, rather than alienate them. When a male veteran is with his civilian buddies, they may not be able to relate to his military experience, but they can relate to what is considered standard male behavior in American society – excessive drinking, vulgarity, sleeping around, etc. Even in the absence of shared combat experience, they have many levels on which to bond with other men – war-themed video games, maybe, or a shared love for porn. But for women, the situation is much different. Not only can our civilian girlfriends not relate to our war experience, but many also seem to expect us to act like we’ve never been to war in the first place. Plenty of male veterans can tell war stories to their buddies and have them be interested and engaged, but if we women bring up explosions and death over cocktails with the girls, we can expect nothing but blank stares or a quick change of topic. “I keep forgetting you were in the Army,” they might say, and we fight the urge to answer quietly that we will never forget.

Eventually, if we work at it, we learn how to slide back and forth with ease between our identities. We learn to be women when we’re with civilian women and veterans when we’re with other veterans. Rather than talk to our fellow women about the things that are really on our minds, we heave a sigh of acceptance. We don’t resent them when they don’t understand us. Instead, we apply makeup, wear cute dresses, drink fruity cocktails, carry purses. We smile at our girlfriends as they tell us another story of their carefree college days, knowing that we never had those. Instead of rolling our eyes when they complain about things we consider trivial compared to our multiple combat deployments, we empathize. We giggle. We wear bright lipstick. We try not to mention the war. And we try to get used to never quite fitting in.

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