Consider the following accomplishments: Completed a combat deployment to Afghanistan. Awarded the Bronze Star Medal. Led patrols for combined operations. Liaised to senior government officials and led platform operations for the 57th Presidential Inauguration. What image do you conjure up when thinking about who this person might be? What are the attributes that come to mind? Would it be a mental leap to know that those accomplishments belong to a woman?
Whatever you came up with, you may have been influenced by the depictions of military service members who are glorified in Hollywood blockbusters, or perhaps by your own understanding of military service. I have no desire to extrapolate from my personal experiences as a woman in the Army and possibly diminish others’ contributions to military service, yet I must acknowledge that the pervasive stories that depict male-only units that engage in combat, or that female veterans have limited scopes, are outdated. The impact of these generalizations widen the gap of understanding once military service members transition to civilian life. The honest gaffes that my fellow service members and I have witnessed over the years contribute to the mental wear and tear of being a woman veteran.
I have been confused as a veterinarian when referred to as a vet, and flippantly asked invasive questions of my experience. I have also been judged for “not looking the part” of a military service member and witnessed countless expressions of disbelief when others learn the extent of my service experience beyond “office” roles. Despite the number of stories like mine that are out there, is this disbelief still acceptable in 2020? More important, why is it still the case?
The complexity in all of this is that I seek to be seen as an equal member of the veteran community, but I also do not want to be solely defined by it, either. My unique strengths are mine because of who I am, and not because the military made me that way. In fact, it is because I possessed those innate traits that I was drawn to the military, a place where I was able to seek new challenges and further strengthen those unique characteristics that define me. While I am proud of my service, that period of time represents just one of my many identities. The predicament is that once I am accepted it can be difficult to shed that role and not be seen as anything more. I am currently working full time, seeking higher education, and embarking on motherhood; nevertheless, these decisions come from my own ambition as I continue to exercise my individuality.
At this juncture in my life, having a deeper understanding of myself and reconciling these conflicting feelings has enabled me to pursue a degree at the Yale School of Management. The academic experience thus far has provided me with a shared experience in a group that I have not had since the military. Even though COVID-19 has impacted the learning environment, it has given my cohort an intangible gift, which is that when we look back at our learning experience years from now, we will have been the few to have gone through the SOM program during a global pandemic. We will be the few to know what it was like, much how the challenging moments in the military aided in creating lifelong friendships and community. More important, I have not felt pigeon-holed into representing just one identity group. SOM has created the conditions possible for me to be seen as the sum of all my parts. This has enabled me to provide my own perspective from multiple lenses and to listen to my peers, who also represent multiple identities, from different points of view.
And so, as we seek to improve inclusivity, let’s be aware of the stories we tell ourselves about others’ identities, because we may just be supporting unquestioned views. A simple practice for the next time you speak to a military veteran is to lean into their experience and be curious about what their service meant to them, as long as they are willing to speak about it. Rather than fitting them into the surface categorizations, you will instead invite them to describe their experience as they see it. Be sure to understand what about their character uniquely defines who they are outside of their time in service. And if you are a veteran, you also have a responsibility to reflect and tell your authentic story.
This Veterans Day will come and go, and we will tip our hats at virtual parades, share catch phrases, and take advantage of retail discounts to honor those who have served in our Armed Forces. And while all those tributes are a way to recognize the occasion, let’s acknowledge that this year’s events have brought to light notions that we can no longer take for granted. My ultimate hope is that 2020 is the year that we also expand on our traditional view of military service members—we owe that to ourselves, to those who have sacrificed, and to those who will join in the future.