Do female veterans face special challenges as they return to civilian life?

Although some women say their journey through the military and their transitions home were difficult because of their gender, others have had different experiences.

By Janay Christian

For New Yorker Susanne Rossignol, transitioning from military service to civilian life was a struggle — at times difficult enough to bring the 29-year-old veteran to tears.

Susanne Rossingnol

Photo courtesy of Susanne Rossignol
Susanne Rossignol (left) and Tiffany Erskine, Rossignol’s friend and roommate during her Iraq deployment, smile during a quiet moment.

For example, Rossignol recalls a particularly frustrating experience eight years ago, when she boarded a bus heading home from Cornell University, where she attended school.

At the top of the steps, the Army veteran, who served in Iraq, pulled out money to pay the fare. But there she stood, confused and wondering exactly how to feed the meter, she recalls.  In the military she had been accustomed to riding on military transports, swiping her identification card to take her wherever she needed.

Perplexed, Rossignol sat down with the money still in her hand. She rode the bus to the end of the line, and as everyone exited, she says the driver accused her of abusing the system. Despite her pleas that she was a veteran home from Iraq, he didn’t believe her and made a remark that flustered her, she says.  Rossignol dashed off the bus and ran the two miles home, crying profusely.

When Rossignol finally got home, she slammed the front door, pressed her back up against it and slid down to the ground. Still crying, she remembers thinking to herself, “I can’t believe how difficult simple things in life are for me now.”

Rossignol’s story is just one of many frequently told by veterans struggling with re-entry into civilian life.  But are those experiences different for female veterans?

Although some women say their journey through the military and their transitions home were difficult because of their gender, others have had different experiences. Some say their treatment in the military was equal to that of men, and that gender had no influence on their experience. Others say reintegrating into the civilian world is indeed challenging, but that men and women face the same hurdles.

Lory Manning, a Navy veteran and director of the Women in the Military Project at the Women’s Research and Education Institute, says a veteran’s experience during service influences their transition into civilian life more than gender does.

“Some veterans have a very hard time and some don’t, and I think sex has very little to do with it,” she says. “It’s your experience and your individual reaction to your experience.”

Writing as therapy

Rossignol says she eventually channeled her anger and frustrations into a book and website about the transition from military to civilian life called Girl Veteran.

The book, which she’s still writing, follows a fictional 28-year-old former Army officer who was honorably discharged after 16 years of service because she got pregnant on deployment. The fictional veteran struggles with working in the corporate world and with civilian life after suffering a miscarriage and being
sexually abused.

Other vets have also turned to writing as a form of therapy.

Army veteran Kate Hoit, 26, works at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs as a staff writer for the department’s blog, VAntage Point, and is currently studying non-fiction writing at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C.

Previously, Hoit kept a personal blog, in which she referred to herself as “G.I. Kate,” to share experiences of her tour of duty in Iraq and her transition back to life in her hometown, Albany, N.Y.

Once she returned home, she says, everything was different from when she left, particularly her family. She says it was difficult watching her mom struggle to pay bills while her dad battled Alzheimer’s disease.

She faced other difficulties, too. After enrolling in  the State University of New York at Albany just a few months after returning home at 21 years old, Hoit recalls having a difficult time relating to her classmates,
particularly women.

“It was really weird,” Hoit says. “I had a mission, a purpose, a uniform, someone I reported to, an amazing job overseas, and now I come back and I’m hanging out with girls that are wearing sweat pants that say ‘Pink’ on their butt, and I’m like, where am I?”

Hoit also remembers having difficulties with dating. But she says the struggles she experienced during her transition helped her realize that she shouldn’t let the war define everything in her life.

“It defined who I loved, who I was friends with, my career, all my thoughts and that’s what I thought for years,” Hoit says. “It took me a really long time to realize that the Iraq War shaped me and molded me, but it couldn’t define who I loved and who I chose to be with.”

Says Hoit: “No one ever tells you the hardest part about war … is coming home.”

Fighting misconceptions

Army veteran and California native Elena Kim, 26, also struggled with the transition home, but she struggled with the transition into the Army as well.

When she first arrived in Iraq, she recalls having difficulties understanding why there was a rule that females needed an escort to take them around the base. Men, after all, weren’t required to have one.

“You’re walking around with an M-4 strapped to your back,” Kim says, “but if I want to use the bathroom I have to knock on a guy’s door and say, ‘Can you walk me down the street?’”

Whether or not women face parallel issues to men both in combat and back home, some say there will always be misconceptions.

Hoit says the biggest misconception for female veterans is that they don’t exist and are not seen as veterans. But it’s up to female veterans to change that.

“It’s about making the country more aware that females are serving in greater numbers than we have and this is what we look like,” Hoit says. “We don’t look like the stereotypical veteran.”

Manning says a lot people are ignorant to what women are doing or what they have done during their service, and that there needs to be more awareness of their contributions.

“A lot of people in the civilian community have no idea what women who are serving do and that women are essentially doing a lot of the same things that the men are doing,” Manning says.

“I think the veterans organizations and many people need to do a much better job of educating the public of the contributions women veterans have made, so that they are as honored as the men.”

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

This project, produced by journalism students at American University, explores the experiences of young veterans as they transition from soldiers to citizens.

Word Clouds From Veteran Survey

What did you miss the most about home?
What did you miss2

Why did you enlist?
Why did you enlist in the military.

From soldier to civilian - what problems did you face?
Challenge of transitioning to civilian life

What difficulties did you face upon returning to college?
Difficulties on returning to college

Word Cloud From Non-Veteran Survey

What challenges do vets face coming home? Non-vets

Top 5 questions veterans told ‘Half the Battle’ they hate being asked:

- Did you kill anyone?
- Do you have PTSD?
- Did you see anybody die?

- Did you get shot at?

- Was it hot?

SOC Logo long