The news this week was that female veterans have a hard time feeling like they’re part of the team once they get back. An article ran in the Associated Press commented that no one buys the gals a beer in the bar and how they’re not invited out to the bar with the families because the wives of their buddies downrange might not approve.
I can relate and in a sense, I understand. I was at a car dealership this weekend and the manager was talking to my husband about being in Iraq. I felt sidelined by the fact that the manager never once asked if I’d been there, too. He simply assumed I was a spouse and I felt like I’d be going ‘ooh ooh me, too, I was there, too,” if I’d spoken up. It was awkward for me but at the same time, had I not read the AP article, I might not have been even thinking about it.
As a female soldier, I’ve always been on the outside looking in. The males in every unit I’ve been a part of have seen a female first, a soldier second, much as if they see a black female first or a Hispanic male first. I’ve accepted that is simply part of being a women in the military. I’ve also accepted another dirty little secret: the wives at home ALWAYS suspect the female soldiers in their husbands units of trying to sleep with their husbands. Their fear is not unfounded. I get to see what their husbands do during the deployments and when they’re TDY. Some of their husbands are not faithful and that is a disappointment to me.
They are not cheating on their wives with me but that doesn’t matter because I am simply the other to them, a woman who spends time with their husbands who is not them. So I understand the awkwardness that some of the guys have in introducing their teams. I can’t smile too much when I meet the wives or else, I’m suspected. I can’t be too stand offish because then I’m hiding something. It’s a precarious balance, one that means that when I get home, I’ve lost the buddies I’ve hung out with all year, bs’ing with them in the TOC or in the smoke area.
That means that when we come home, I’m on my own. I can’t seek out the friends that I had downrange without causing suspicion and rumor and the last thing that anyone needs is rumor and innuendo. Coming home is hard enough without adding jealousy into the mix. But the blatant, more often than not, assumption that I have not deployed to combat is almost as irritating as having people look at me and see a lieutenant instead of seeing an officer with over 14 years in the service.
People can’t help what they see. They see a female, the mental association is not with being a soldier in our society, just like when folks see a lieutenant, they don’t expect to see someone with experience. I am what people see, at least until they get to know me. I cannot change their expectations of me in that first glance but I can change it once they get to know me.
I feel like I’m doing a ‘me, too’ thing when I correct people if they leave me out. Invariably, they are surprised that I’m in the army because ‘I don’t look like I’m in the army’. I’m not sure exactly what that means, but it’s irrelevant. I am in the army. I am a combat veteran. And when they shake my husband’s hand and say welcome home, I feel the lack of recognition.
Maybe I shouldn’t. Maybe I should just accept it as what it is. But it still hurts.
And it still feels wrong, for me and the thousands of women who’ve served with distinction just like our male soldiers.