At the Ben Atchley State Veterans Home in West Knoxville on a chilly October Saturday, a conference room starts filling up with veterans. A former Marine sits at the head of the long wooden table as veterans representing almost every branch of the military start arriving. When about 20 veterans have found their seats around the table, they start sharing stories of their time in the service. Most are in their 40s—Desert Storm-era vets—but some served during Vietnam and Korea, and a World War II veteran is wheeled in by an employee of the facility.
Jessica King, the dark-haired former Marine at the head of the table, finally speaks up and calls the meeting of the Women Veterans of America (Chapter 44) to order. It's an unusual meeting. King later says the group, which was started this past July, was supposed to start forming committees, but there are guests, and the veterans are eager to listen and share their experiences in the service, and out.
King introduces Melanie Finuf, an Air Force veteran who now works at Volunteers of America. She's there to talk about the new Supportive Services for Veteran Families, which she says will help families in danger of losing their housing, vehicles, or just need some help with financial planning and finding a job.
But Finuf also tells the group she understands being a veteran—and being a female veteran—isn't easy. She says she got lucky when she stumbled into the job she has now, but when her family first moved to Knoxville, it took some time to adjust.
"I was very lonely after moving to Knoxville," she says. "It's a very different culture [here]."
King says her life post-military would've been much different if WVA Chapter 44 had existed when she first arrived in Knoxville as a single mom of two.
"[People] assume you're either an Amazon goddess, or a woman of the night," King says. Some others are always waiting for her to flip a switch and turn into Rambo, she adds. Members of the group agree. Most of them say they consider themselves tomboys who don't easily fit society's idea of a woman. Women veterans not only deal with the same obstacles male veterans face when leaving the military, but they also have to be wives, mothers, and employees in a world that doesn't necessarily understand them.
This year hasn't been short of controversy over the military's treatment of women. Though they make up just about 14 percent of the armed forces, half of all victims of sexual assault in the military are women. The Department of Defense estimates, based on anonymous surveys, that there were about 26,000 sexual assaults in all the branches of the military in 2012, and just 3,374 of those incidents were reported (which was about 200 more reported incidents than in 2011). Those figures emerged amid discussion over what women's roles should be in combat situations (a handful of women are now attempting grueling tests to apply for combat positions).
These women have come face to face with these struggles. They've been singled out for being female, and they've dealt with burdens their male colleagues may never even consider. Here are some of their stories.
King can't say too much about what she did in the Marines. She went in at age 17 in 1989, planning to march for the United States Marine Band. Her half-brother, who was also a Marine, had been killed in the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing, which inspired King to sign up.
But King is unique. Her father, who was in the Navy, had family from French-speaking Quebec, Canada, and her Jewish mother sent her to Hebrew school. King's trilingual abilities made her an excellent candidate for intelligence positions, which she took. She was stationed in Little Creek, Va., though she wasn't there all the time.
"I was a listener," she says, "I listened for certain voices."
She mentions she worked in the Middle East—she won't say which country or countries. Though she was part of a regular unit, her job took her around to many other units "kind of like a traveling art or music teacher."
Any branch of the military, she says, offers everyone, but especially women, many more opportunities to learn skills and do work that civilian women might not necessarily learn.
"If you walk into a mechanic's shop and say you want to learn how to work on cars, they'd laugh at you," she says. "But if you say you were in the Marines, they'll be more open."
But King didn't just pick up practical skills during her time in the military.
"I couldn't wait to throw a grenade," she says with a smile. And, "I've been all over the place. They say ‘join the Marines and see the world.'"
But her career came to an abrupt end when she was wounded in combat.
"I had shrapnel in my shoulder and my left eye. I'm deaf in my left ear," she says. And her foot bones were shattered. "I had to learn how to walk again."
It took a year and a half to completely recover, and though she was married at the time, she also had two young children at home. Again, she can't say where she was, or what exactly happened when she was injured. Most of her five years of active duty is classified information. And that delayed some of her VA benefits.
But since King didn't leave the military immediately after being injured, she continued to work at Fort Campbell, where she taught a transition assistance program for soldiers preparing to leave the military. Much of what she taught was which forms needed to get filled out so that soldiers could receive benefits. She says some former military members don't realize that all discharged soldiers (except dishonorably discharged members) are eligible for unemployment benefits in any state, no matter where they entered or exited the military.
And those benefits are sometimes very necessary for soldiers heading into the civilian work force. In her experience, King says potential employers are either "totally curious" or completely turned off by her service.
For King, the corporate jobs she took after she left the Marines were uncomfortable. She found herself unable to bond with her "girly" female co-workers. Most of her friends at work have been men. And though she's found a good place to work as a bookkeeper for small businesses, and has surrounded herself with good friends and a supportive boyfriend, life in Knoxville wasn't easy to begin with.
Her uncle, also a military man, had moved to Knoxville, and King moved to be near him and his wife, who took care of her and King's kids during the day. King did take some classes toward a sociology degree at the University of Tennessee (among several other schools), but lined up a job before she graduated.
It worked out, she says. But all the while, King was dealing with PTSD she didn't even realize she had.
Early in her military career, King was raped by a commanding officer. She says she tried to report what had happened to the most senior officer at the Marine Corps Recruits Depot in San Diego. But the only thing that happened was that she was transferred elsewhere, and just went on with her career. She rarely spoke of it. She only told her husband after they were married. King says her rape contributed to her divorce.
It happened when she was 18, and only happened once, she says. But some of the effects of what the VA is now calling Military Sexual Trauma (MST) started showing up in her post-military life. Since coming to Knoxville, she's been through 12 jobs, due to both the recession and because she says she's uncomfortable with relationships.
None of this occurred to her until the VA started screening for MST a few years ago. When they finally asked her, at a routine check up, if she'd ever been sexually assaulted in the military, she said yes. She was already working with a counselor after a period of personal upheaval she prefers not to talk about, and when she finally told her counselor about the rape from years earlier, the counselor said it all made sense.
"She was just astounded, and she said ‘When we talked before, you didn't have any [specific] problems.' I can't remember what she called it, but it was one of the terms for PTSD. And she said ‘I didn't know where it stemmed from, but you never told me about this situation,'" King says.
King says she never talked about the rape because nobody cared. Had she been surrounded by her friends in the WVA, she says, things would probably be different. Maybe she would've told someone sooner. Maybe she wouldn't have had such a difficult time getting her feet on the ground. Still, she says she wouldn't necessarily change anything in her past.
"I wouldn't have changed much. I really wouldn't. If I did, who knows where I'd be now, and I certainly don't want to be anywhere but here, doing what I'm doing with the people I'm doing it with. I'd be afraid to change too much," she says.
Laura Comas enlisted in the Army at age 23 in 1984, and served during Desert Storm. She was married to a man she says couldn't keep a job, and didn't want to rely on public assistance to feed her growing family. Her father was in the Army when she was a child, and it just seemed like a good option for a steady income. The first time she tried to join the Army, she was pregnant, and was turned down. She tried again when her daughter was 10 months old, and got in.
Comas says she's always been pretty firm in her faith, which is why she applied to become a chaplain's assistant. A chaplain's assistant's main job, she says, is "to kill anyone who tries to kill the chaplain." Though, as she found out, it's usually more of an administrative position.
Now, nearly 30 years after she enlisted, Comas says she loved being in the Army.
"I loved my experience in the military. I loved Germany. I loved the security it provides. I love the camaraderie that it provides. I love the idea of knowing what is expected of me so I can do the best I can. And you always know what's expected of you," she says.
Comas has a vibrant presence. Though her dark hair and fine features are nearly doll-like, she's tall, strong, and projects confidence whether she's showing off her crocheting projects (a lifelong hobby), or recalling the time she, at the age of 43, called out a soldier in a bar for wearing his uniform incorrectly. She knows she's charming, she says, and people usually appreciate her candor.
But her willingness to tell it like it is occasionally made things difficult. After she rebuffed a drill sergeant who came onto her at Basic Training in Fort Jackson, S.C., she did more push-ups and sit-ups, and ran more miles than anyone else. No one asked her about it until everyone she'd been at basic training with was on a bus to Fort Dix, N.J.—a distance they finally considered "safe" from their drill sergeants.
"I told them everything," she says.
Comas was then sent to Fort Campbell. Though the post office is in Kentucky, most of the Army post is on the Tennessee side of the border. She became pregnant with her son there, while working for an Episcopalian, and then an Eastern Orthodox chaplain. She was at Fort Campbell during both the "Gander Incident," in which a plane full of soldiers returning to the post from Egypt crashed in New Foundland, Canada, killing all 256 passengers, and for the 1986 Challenger space shuttle crash (which happened shortly before her son was born).
In February, she got orders to go to Stuttgart Army Base in Germany, which is between Frankfurt and Munich. With her baby, toddler, and civilian husband in tow, she arrived at the base—along with a man who'd eventually force her out of the Army. The man was a Southern Baptist chaplain, she says, who told her, upon landing, that she'd go to hell for being in the military instead of her husband. She says she was glad she wound up assisting a different chaplain, who, along with his family, became a good friend and ally.
However, two years later that chaplain went back to the States, and Comas was reassigned to work with the Southern Baptist chaplain. Comas says she never felt comfortable around the man, who kept a very close eye on her. When she needed to have forms filled out to get a legal separation from her husband, she hid the packet in an unlabeled envelop at the back of one of her desk drawers.
Since, at the time, a chaplain had to sign off on marriage separation forms, Comas had asked the first chaplain she assisted in Germany to help her out, which she did. The Baptist chaplain threatened to not let it happen, though Comas did get the separation she requested.
The Southern Baptist chaplain filed a review form that was very unflattering, and Comas was sent back to the States.
Comas left the Army and went back to the one place her former husband said he'd never live again: Clarksville, Tenn. Luck was on her side, because an apartment in Austin Pea State University's family housing opened up as soon as Comas and her two children arrived. She began pursuing a psychology degree, but missed being in the Army, and joined the Army National Guard. She was promoted to Sergeant, and, soon after, was activated when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
Her unit was split up all over Europe and the Middle East, she says. She was again assigned to Germany.
"Thank goodness, because I don't tan," she says.
But there again, she ran into trouble. Comas says she was denied a job she wanted while serving in Germany because her (married) commanding officer held a torch for her. She was kept at a different base than the private she was in charge of training and the chaplain she worked with at the time.
"He was hoping [we'd get together], and the fact that he was hoping kept me from doing my job as a chaplain's assistant and training my private," Comas says.
After Desert Storm, and after Comas had left the National Guard, she considered joining the Army once more, but just missed the age of enlistment cut-off. Instead, she used her psychology degree to work with emotionally disturbed kids, and earned a masters degree in gerontology. While still in Clarksville, she married her current husband, Jeff, who'd been a friend, and who helped her get on her feet with her children when she returned from Germany the second time. They married in 1992, and moved to Knoxville in 1997, when they opened the Childbloom Guitar Program, which teaches kids ages 6-12 how to play the instrument.
Comas just left the business and is in the process of starting her own travel agency for crocheting vacations similar to one she took a few years ago. But right now, she's working on crocheting as many portraits of female soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, which will go hang in a museum in Washington, D.C. once they're all complete. With two completed portraits and one about a quarter of the way finished draped over a couch in her house, Comas says, "I loved being a soldier."
The job security aspect of the military is partly what drew Marie Ehlers, the secretary of the WVA, to the Navy. She hesitated for a while, though, because she was nervous about boot camp. But the opportunity to get out of Cleveland, Ohio, where she spent most of her childhood, is what made her take the plunge.
"I'm not a tough chick," she says frankly, in contrast to King's subtle grit and Comas' vivacious presence. "I am kind of a bookworm."
Her father was in the Navy, and she says he was, in fact, the person who gave her the idea of joining the military. So she enlisted at age 21 in 1989. After boot camp she went to A-School—similar to a trade school, she says, where she learned the administrative aspects of Navy correspondence. (A C-School, she says, would be much more technical and specialized.)
Ehlers served for four years as a yeoman second class in the Navy (which, she says, equates to an administrative position). She never saw any combat, but she did handle some classified message traffic. She says her favorite time of day would be night watches after a full day's work.
"It was a chance to be alone. You're always surrounded by people," she says. At night, "I got time to think about what I was doing."
But she also says the people she lived with, worked with, and played with at each command became like family. She even met the man who would become her husband while serving. But she also got to indulge her adventurous side: She worked in Iceland for nine months, and spent time in Bermuda and Puerto Rico during her four years in the Navy.
Ehlers says because she worked a typically "female" job, she wasn't subjected to harsh treatment. Still, she says there was plenty of sexual harassment at work. "I was intimidated. You want to be careful. You learn to put up with a lot of cussing…[and] tolerate archaic attitudes," she says. And she doesn't think those attitudes are going away anytime soon.
"It's too culturally entrenched. I think there's a lot of bravado, a lot of macho [attitudes], and they need to be confident. But sometimes that means having an out group within the in-group, and sometimes it's the women," she says.
After she left the Navy, she and her husband moved to Rota, Spain, where her husband continued to serve. Life as a military wife was sometimes lonely. Ehlers said she felt left out of a group she'd once belonged to, and she didn't have a job to go to every day to form new connections. That's not to mention she was in a foreign country she'd previously only visited for a couple weeks while on leave from her job in Iceland.
When she and her husband moved to Knoxville in 2008 (her family is from Maryville), getting used to the casual atmospheres of civilian work environments was strange. "When I worked on an admiral's staff, it was much more formal. You're working for an admiral!" she says. But at her job now (she's a nursing assistant), she says there's no ranks to consider, and no uniform to don correctly every day.
Doing things differently is difficult, but Ehlers realizes she's pretty lucky that the biggest hurdles for her were figuring out how to operate outside of the military structure and which records to make copies of (she says entire service and medical records). She says making sure to get complete copies of those records can go a long way in making it much easier to create a resume and to apply to receive veterans' benefits.
And that's one of the reasons she found her way to the WVA. She says the group's interests are aligned and focused on supporting veterans. "Who else is going to be interested in that?" she says.
Back at Ben Atchley, the women veterans are talking about things in the civilian world that were difficult to get used to after being in the military.
"I don't know how many times I've left or lost a purse," King says, since military uniforms have so many pockets for everything one might keep in a purse.
"Walking through a door, and reaching for the cap that's no longer there," Comas says.
But it's not just that. As Comas explains, the world operates by the 80-20 rule. "Eighty percent of the people do 20 percent of the work. The military is mostly made up of 20 percenters," she explains, which makes working in the civilian world, where most people are "80 percenters," can be frustrating for veterans.
"I can't say everything always ran smoothly, but in comparison, you could count on the person you worked with to do their job," King says, who is answered by a chorus of "yes!" from nearly everyone around the table.
"I think that's one of the things I've struggled with personally, is my demeanor. I can't get rid of it. Now people make me feel like I have to say ‘I'm sorry' because of the way I am," says Jody Khan, a Marine veteran. "I was an investigator for the state of Georgia, and my boss said ‘are you going to be able to put your Marine Corps and your military police in your back pocket when you're out doing your job?' They don't want what they call ‘an intimidating presence,'" she says.
"They want a softer touch," King says. "These are qualities of all veterans. But when you're a woman who walks into a job interview, versus a man who walks into a job interview, it's not wanted or expected in women's jobs. There are still very much women's jobs and men's jobs in the civilian world—for the most part."
"They want us to be women, and part of the problem is that we are women, we're just a unique crowd," Comas adds.
The military is something of a paradox. Though it offers women the opportunity to be independent and participate in traditionally-male activities and fields of work that might be intimidating to civilian women, it's also paternalistic. Paychecks come regularly. Housing is provided or easy to find. You can eat in the chow hall. Childcare is cheap and readily available. In the civilian world, the women explain, no one is there to keep you accountable. And that's part of the reason why the transition is difficult.
"You've joined a family and you've left a family. The closeness is not the same as that with your co-workers in the civilian world. It's not the equivalent. Because you live together. You do everything together. You have fun together. Sometimes you have families together. It's definitely a level of connection that's [incomparable]. It's painful [to leave]," Ehlers says.
And that's what brought the group together. It was painful to leave their comfort zones, the structure, the camaraderie, and the sense of purpose. But most of them have stories of being harassed, or single out by drill sergeants, or treated with kid gloves in their post-military lives. At the WVA, they can share the stories that get swept under the rug in public. They can say they were raped, and they'll be believed. They can say they're treated differently just because they're women, and the other members know what they're experiencing. And they can still say despite all the trouble, that they loved being in the military.