When many women leave the service, they expect that being a woman in the civilian community will be easier, but that isn’t always the case. They have to prove their abilities all over again, earn their place at the table again. As veterans, they’re not afraid to prove themselves. They proved themselves in boot camp. They proved themselves at tech training. They proved themselves every time they arrived at a new duty station. They have plenty of practice proving themselves. They can prove themselves one more time. The difference, this time, is that the individuals on the other end are not prepared for them to do so.
There are roughly 2 million women veterans in the United States and Puerto Rico, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Without the uniform, there is no outward indication that these women are veterans. In a recent video, Kirstie Ennis, Marine door gunner, amputee, and first veteran—male or female—to grace the cover of ESPN Magazine’s Body Issue, stated that she is often told that she is “too pretty” or “too frail” for people to believe she was a Marine.
What civilians do not realize, what women veterans often do not even realize, is that they might appear to be like other women, but they aren’t operating on the expectations traditionally applied to women. Behaving at odds with these traditional expectations is often a significant drawback in the ability of women veterans to fit-in in the workplace, in the dating world, in the female civilian community, in society in general. And directly challenging these expectations can often lead to conflict.
On active duty, women were my support network, a situation encouraged both by our small numbers—approximately 15 percent of the active duty force is women—and by the military’s emphasis on teamwork. My experiences with civilian women, however, have not always been as friendly. Other women veterans have also reported negative experiences with civilian women, ranging from lack of understanding and inability to relate to cold shoulders.
In a 2015 study on how female veterans cope with transition, one participant said: “When I first got out of the military, I had a hard time with [women], civilian women. They didn’t understand why I looked so militant. ‘Why do you walk straight up? Why do you walk so?’” Operating in male-dominated environments and doing traditionally male activities, up to and including combat, are so different from the experiences of civilian women that the two sides often cannot relate. Moreover, the behaviors—male behaviors—that women veterans learned were correct in the military are now at odds with the expectations civilians have for women. Instead of helping them fit in, these same behaviors now make them stand out, often in ways that make other people uncomfortable.
Complicating matters is that, while I and other women veterans make efforts to assimilate, we are often reluctant to completely lose the identity we developed in the military, particularly if it means assuming traditional gender roles. The idea that the male standard is the normal one has become so ingrained during service that women veterans don’t realize they’ve absorbed the spoken or unspoken message that adding “female” to something diminishes it.