Yesterday I spoke with Helen Coster from Forbes Magazine who is writing a feature article for Marie Claire about women veterans and the issues they face when returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.  I was one of several female vets she interviewed, and the piece is scheduled to be published in March.

The content of our conversation took my brain on a walk through memory lane…I recounted scenes I hadn’t conjured up in years, things which used to be on my mind all the time, but now only pop up when intentionally summoned for conversations such as these.  And as I start out writing this piece, I’m already wishing I had just recorded our conversation and transcribed it because I know it came out more natural sounding than typing it out now likely will :-/  But, here it goes 😉

When I think about the challenges I faced as a woman veteran returning home from war, the recollection of the anxiety I felt strikes me first.  When I say anxiety, I don’t mean like an anxiety disorder, I mean specifically this pervasive feeling I had of my-time-is-limited-therefore-I-must-do-everything-today-at-1000mph type of unrest. Also, I remember the physical effects (some of which I still suffer today), the yo-yo of emotions and behavior, the relationship issues, the feeling of disconnectedness, and what I like to call the “suspended animation” effect I experienced before, during, and after my deployment years.

My anxiety and stress hit its first pinnacle during the four or so months between my two deployments to Iraq, the first of which was seven months long and the second five months. I was home from war, so you’d think I’d be nothing but happy about that, but I had a cloud that followed me everywhere, hovering over every activity in which I engaged, aggressively reminding me that I’d be gone again soon. Furthermore, my time “home” wasn’t at home.  I spent my “R&R” making various flights to the east coast (visiting family in GA, SC, and VA), pinballing back and forth between 29 Palms and San Diego, and a month playing soccer in FL.  I was obsessed with filling every free moment I had with some sort of activity – travel, parties, drinking, concerts, new sports, etc. It’s like when you hear stories of peoples’ “come to Jesus” moments where their life flashed before their eyes in a car wreck they survived and they had a new appreciation for life afterwards – well, imagine experiencing that sensation nearly every day. That’s kind of what it’s like in a war zone. When I was deployed, I knew realistically any day could be my last – not by accident but because there are people out there who would kill us if they could, whether by long range rockets, IEDs, or bullets. I didn’t have to literally be “in the shit” for that feeling of imminent fatality to seep into my psyche. Ok, so I wasn’t in Vietnam with bullets flying over my head every day, but this was my reality and if you’ve ever been in a war zone, you get it.  So, if you can strike a balanced approach to your zest for life, then great; but that summer, in my case, it wasn’t balanced so it wasn’t healthy.  Filling my time became a compulsion.

I deployed with an UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) squadron.  I spent 99% of my time inside the wire but I witnessed death and destruction in real-time (on a monitor in front of me) as it happened to my grunt friends and comrades below.  I also took several helicopter flights off my home base, TQ, to go to Fallujah and Al Qa’im, and well, helicopters get shot down, so that was always a concern.  Also, our base got hit by IDF (indirect fire) more than a handful of times, two of which (once at TQ once at AQ) I was out for a run and the rocket literally sailed right over my head landing in the field next to me (TQ) or landed right outside the gate 200m away (AQ) – both close enough to feel like “shit, I almost just died.”  Point being, death could happen even if you were “safe.”

All that mental stuff eventually takes its physical toll on a person.  I know this isn’t rocket science; people understand nowadays that stress causes real, physiological detriment to your health.  But I think that was a different kind of stress.  Thinking you might die and hustling to meet a work deadline aren’t the same.  And when I got home, the physical draw down was evident.  I was sick more often in the two years I deployed and the two years following my deployments than I was in my entire life beforehand.  I suffered from intestinal issues, migraines, body aches, chronic colds, chronic sinus infections, terrible trouble sleeping (even more than usual)…I know now those were likely all stress related conditions, but at the time I didn’t understand that.  My body had broken down even when I didn’t really think my mind had….but, honestly, my mind had broken down a little bit, too.

I look back through my personal journals from that time-frame and I’m astounded by what I read (and by what I remember).  My emotions, and often my behavior, were erratic.  I was sensitive about everything because everything felt important, every event carried significance, I wanted everything I did to be perfect and when it wasn’t, it could drop-kick me into a downward spiral.  Plus, like I already mentioned, I was physically in pain on a daily basis; that pain and sickness also made everything seem difficult.  I think I had a seven month-long migraine in 2006.

Ok, but enough about feeling sick all the time (bleh!).  I also told Helen about some of the relationship stuff that came up during deployments.  Well, for starters, I commented on how funny I thought it was that my girlfriends and I spent a lot of time talking about relationships in the first place.  There we were – at war – running convoys, directing aircraft, providing security, yet we talked about men almost every day!  Even with the daily stress of deployed life, friends dying, our own lives threatened, we still talked about the boys we liked, who we were dating, who we thought we’d marry, if someone was waiting for us, if we were waiting for someone, the temptations that challenged us.  Many of us talked about the dilemma we felt we faced by pursuing a Marine Corps career: we loved the military, the service, the leadership, the responsibility, the autonomy, but we knew the lifestyle hurt our chances at real, healthy romantic relationships.  Healthy relationships weren’t impossible of course, but the thing is, as women, it’s harder to find a dude who’s going to wait on you while you go off to war than it was for the guys to find a woman who’d do so.  Stick with me, I’m making a generalization.  I know that both men and women do wait for spouses, and both men and women do also cheat or otherwise change their minds about said “waiting.”  The point is, due to societal assumptions, female Marines aren’t exactly filling a traditional role and if you weren’t dating a Marine, most guys didn’t get what you were doing.  Even if you did happen to be dating a healthy, well-adjusted male Marine who “got it,” they didn’t always actually know how to empathize, and/or there was still all the normal associated stress with constant training and deployment commitments that often kept the two of you apart.  Heck, I got “dear john”ed by my Marine Corps boyfriend one month into my first deployment after he swore up and down he knew I was “the one,” didn’t want to date anyone else, and was willing to support me from afar and “wait” for me until I got home; he’d already deployed himself, so he “got it” and would be there for me.  I laugh remembering the scene now. 🙂

I also found it difficult to have anything other than very intense relationships.  Not that I felt like I explicitly chose that, or that my friends with similar experiences did either, just that that was kind of how things seemed to go.  Of my close girlfriends in the Marine Corps who were dating someone significantly, for all of them, their significant other was a male Marine, and their relationships, like mine, tended to be one of extremes.  It made sense, though, given the high operational tempo we all functioned under.  Either you knew FOR SURE that you wanted to date the person you were dating, or you didn’t; so there didn’t seem to be a lot of lukewarm sentiments floating around or dating “just to date.”  We began relationships under intense circumstances – non-stop military training, war, death, stress – thus intense relationships were born.  People got serious quickly, people talked about marriage early, and we made decisions abruptly.  We needed certainty to cling to.  We didn’t know what tomorrow held and so, if a relationship was something we could wipe with the certainty paintbrush, then we would.

My civilian girlfriends didn’t get that, though.  They had the freedom to take their time dating around with normal early to mid-twenties stressors, but nothing like the stress my female Marine buddies and I experienced.  They weren’t moving all the time, deploying all the time, working twelve to eighteen hours a day five to seven days a week.  They climbed the ladder in their civilian careers and were respected for it, or finished their Masters degrees, or embarked on world travel. They were “normal” twenty-four year olds who went to happy hours after work.  I felt disconnected.  I loved my civilian girlfriends, but I couldn’t fully relate to them or them to me anymore, not for awhile anyway.  And it wasn’t just in regards to comparing our romantic trysts…it was about life in general.  I wasn’t ashamed of my war experience, but I avoided talking about it around most of them because I didn’t want to seem like the diehard Marine who always referenced some war story.  Plus, those stories had to be told in a different language that civilians didn’t understand…they almost became different stories altogether when I tried to change them to tones which my civilian family or friends could really understand.  So, sometimes I just didn’t want to bother and I assumed they weren’t interested anyway.

Professionally, there were gaps in our conversations, as well. I would tell my non-military female friends about some of the comments I’d get and behavior I’d deal with in the Marine Corps and they would just be like “No, you can’t say (or do) something like that to someone.”  I relayed the story about my “PT gear incident” to disbelieving girlfriends.  One day in Iraq, I ran from our living quarters to our work area in Marine Corps issued green-on-green PT gear.  I entered the building, went straight to my desk, and finished a project due that night.  I’d already worked a fourteen hour day but left the office to grab a run before it got dark, knowing I’d finish up my workout at the “office” to come in and complete that assignment.  Well, the SgtMaj apparently felt that I was “distracting the Marines” in my PT gear and told me to leave.  Only, he didn’t even have the backbone or respect to tell me directly, he told another (male) Lieutenant to tell me to leave.  And that’s one of the least offensive stories I can think of.  Many of my friends just couldn’t fathom it; and I’d just laugh because what else was I going to do? (Although, the next day I did approach the SgtMaj and told him that next time he had an issue with me that he needed to do the professional thing and address me directly.

So that feeling of “you have no idea” often left me feeling disconnected, like no one back home could really relate.  It wasn’t their fault, and I didn’t hold it against them, it just was what it was – if they hadn’t been there, then they just didn’t know, and no amount of story-telling – good, bad, or otherwise – would ever make them know.  So at some point, you have to just let it go and realize there are only certain friends you can share certain stories with.

Plus there was this whole “suspended animation” phenomenon that happened while I was away.  It’s where you go away and your life sort of stops but everyone else’s back home keeps going.  Like you’re standing still and they’re swirling around you.  It feels that way when you’re deployed, then you come home and get thrown back in the current, and sometimes you can’t keep up…or you just feel so far behind…it’s like losing touch with a close friend for a long time, only it’s sort of that feeling with everyone in your life…and it can be very unsettling.

In general, I think men and women Marines face nearly all the same challenges, but many of the things men are frustrated with are even more acute for women.  Especially in a warzone, and especially earlier on in the war, where people would jokingly call some of the FOBs the “wild west” and you really could kind of act however you wanted.  Like I said before, I’d tell friends about some of the things male Marines would say to me – including my superiors – and they’d just be shocked, whereas for me that was a normal day, but to them (my friends) those were ways you just didn’t treat women, let alone in a professional environment.  So on that tight rope I walked between being a Marine and being a woman, I just let some of those things go…because I couldn’t carry all of it all the time.  I decided I couldn’t be a female Marine; I had to be a Marine who is a woman.  The Marine comes first.  So, as a Marine woman, unless someone seriously violated a professional code or blatantly harassed me, I never complained, and I almost happily accepted whatever came my way because it meant I was tough enough to cope with the crap and the craic.*


PS I don’t claim that this is an exhaustive list of thoughts on issues or of issues themselves that women vets face, or that all women face all of these issues.  This is just a short thought piece about my own experiences. 🙂  I plan to write a “part 2” as I already know there are points I’ve missed that I’d like to discuss more. 🙂