“What did you do in the war, Mommy?” shouted the headline from yesterday’s Parade Magazine. According to Barry Yeoman, who profiled two female vets from Iraq and Afghanistan, “the real battle begins after they come home.” But, as the women profiled explained, there were plenty of difficulties establishing themselves as leaders in a sexist, dismissive masculine world. It seems that women veterans, still pioneers in the military, pay a high price for answering the call to service.
According to the article, “Female troops face the same problems as their male counterparts, including traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But they also deal with problems unique to their sex. According to the VA, between October 2011 and September 2012, more than 20 percent of its female patients who’d served during Iraq or Afghanistan operations reported having experienced military sexual trauma—defined as sexual assault or repeated threatening sexual harassment. Women are also more likely to be single parents, the Institute of Medicine found, making it harder to juggle their military and family obligations. And their marriages are more than twice as likely as men’s to end in divorce. Yet women often feel pressure to bear those stresses without complaint. “You don’t want to be the girl in the army that looks weak,” says Mata, “because they already think that you’re weak.”
“Just as distressing is the effect of war on female fighters’ lives when they return to civilian life. Women veterans make up the fastest-growing segment of the homeless. They’re diagnosed with mental-health problems more often than male vets. And women vets who have served since 2001 had, at press time, an unemployment rate of 10.3 percent—higher than the rates for both male vets and female non-vets.”
“With the military poised to lift its last sex-based restrictions by 2016, women are now the fastest-growing group of veterans. Even as the number of male veterans decreases, the number of female vets is climbing. It now exceeds 2.2 million. “The nature of warfare places women in hostile battle space in ever-increasing numbers,” says a 2012 VA report—even for those who don’t serve in combat roles. “There is no front line anymore,” says Amanda Mata, 32, who endured sniper fire while working as an army operations sergeant in Iraq.”
Despite the challenges, women in the military are demonstrating the persistence, self-sacrifice, toughness and excellence we have historically shown moving into fields once reserved for men. Women are distinguishing themselves as leaders in their own right, in battle, research and strategic roles, achieving high honors and respect from their peers.
In a forum on leadership for the army, senior women reported their strategies for establishing authority and trust. A common theme was taking on the jobs that everyone hesitated to do. Ellen Helmerson said, “We need to be looking at that staff sergeant and junior officer, recognize their abilities, then mentor and enable them,” she said. “You also have to put yourself out there, and as women sometimes you had to grab opportunities that were not offered, but raise your hand first and say that job is for me, I don’t care if it’s hard.”
It’s ironic and painful that innovators in leadership, in this case women in the military, face a higher cost culturally and personally than their conventional peers. The systems in place don’t necessarily serve them or their particular challenges, and safety nets that might help are more difficult to find because they are outside the old norms and networks.
The paradoxes of power are also more stark for women breaking into a new arena. They are expected to conform to conventional military roles and expectations even as they’re pressured to fulfill outdated stereotypes about women. Military service always exposes leaders and followers to trauma, danger and uncertainty. For women, a minority with much to prove, those challenges are multiplied.