That question of what a veteran looks like has been asked often through recent years. Even with the large number of projects, writings and news stories the same persistent images are often portrayed.
I do not fit into those images.
As a woman in her early 30’s with a corporate career, my military past is usually one of secret. This isn’t always intentional, but my past military life isn’t something that often comes up in my day to day dealings and I hesitate to mention it.
When I do first tell someone that I am a veteran I have received a wide range of responses, with most along the lines of – “wow, I never would have guessed.”
Honestly, I don’t know how to take that. Does it mean that I don’t look like I would be up to the job or able to handle myself in certain situations? Do I not appear to be worthy of a title that many hold in high regard? Or is it merely a question based on curiosity, especially if they haven’t been around military functions or personnel?
Whatever the reason for the surprise, I’ve found that I in turn feel uncomfortable mentioning my veteran status. Even though the comments are not meant to discourage, I admit that they make me feel a bit taken back. Dare I go so far as to say, it makes me feel a bit like a fraud. Should I be able to claim veteran status even though I don’t fit the image everyone is looking for? Am I missing something that should be included when taking on that label? Should I have done more to fulfill this role? Doubts pop into my mind each time I have to confirm that my veteran status is in fact accurate.
Yes, I served in the active duty. But, it was only 4 years.
Yes, I was stationed overseas. But, it wasn’t in a war zone.
Yes, I was willing to sacrifice life and limb. But, I didn’t.
This leaves me in the perplexing state of being perfectly happy saying I’m ex-military, but not quite comfortable claiming the title of veteran. Ludicrous, isn’t it? In our society, the title of veteran has become a place of stature that seems to have well defined parameters of who does and does not fit. It’s an image of a man of respect. It’s our previous male generations who served in WWII and in Vietnam. It’s our countrymen who are returning from Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s not a Midwestern, 33-year-old woman juggling family and career.
Even as veterans we can make the mistake of misjudging a person based on not fitting the ‘right’ or standard mold. I went into the VFW one day in order to get paperwork to change my post and the first question asked was, “Are you getting the form for your husband?” Even after explaining it was for myself, I heard, “You mean you need paperwork as an auxiliary member?” The idea that I could be the veteran, that I was the VFW member, didn’t even register as a possibility.
The act of being questioned whether I belong makes me question whether I belong. It feels like a subtle act of shaming even when it’s unintentional. Another reminder that can be filed away with the looks of confusion and questions of curiosity others have given before. Another incident quietly saying, “this isn’t your club to join.”
It’s truly an interesting situation to be in. On one hand, you have individuals who tell you to be proud of your service and that your sacrifice, however big or small, will always be appreciated. But those words come after the stumbling block of surprise that you are even a part of that group. They come after hearing so many discouraging statements like, “what kind of woman joins the military?”
Maybe these conflicting reactions are one reason why many women are hesitant to discuss their military past or to self-identify as being a veteran. Regardless of the number of handshakes received on Veteran’s Day or the words of thanks, in us lies the negative looks and words that we’ve heard; the view that we don’t really belong.
I’m here to say, that yes, we do. We may not look like the image of a veteran portrayed in the movies and we may not loudly proclaim our past, but we are here. We do belong. It may take baby steps to become comfortable with our title, but it is privilege we can bear.