It was an exceptionally hot September day in Twentynine Palms, California, and I was sitting in the waiting room of the physical therapist’s office, waiting for my initial appointment. I was there for an injury I’d acquired rappelling in the Marine Corps in 2002 that never properly healed. Two years later I was finally getting in for physical therapy.
The only other person in the waiting room with me was a gentleman, probably about 250lbs, with a beard down to his chest and an old ball cap with a fishing hook stuck through the bill. He looked (and smelled) like he hadn’t showered in weeks. I was pretty sure he was homeless, and had just ducked into the office for a moment of shade and relief from the 120 degree temps outside. In tattered jeans, tennis shoes with holes in them, and at least 3 shirts, he clearly wasn’t ready for physical therapy.
After what seemed forever, a receptionist poked her head into the waiting room, looked directly at the man next to me, and said “Mr. Foley? We’re ready for you.”
The man just stared at her and then looked at me, confused. “I think she means you,” he muttered.
“I’m Foley,” I told the woman.
“Oh. Our paperwork says you’re the veteran. I’m so sorry, we’ll fix that to reflect the dependent of the veteran. Come on back,” she pushed the door open for me, barely pausing to breath as she went on. “I really hate it when they mess up this stuff. You’d think it wouldn’t be so hard to write ‘spouse’ in the margins or something!” The woman laughed at her brilliance, going on. “Anyway, I’m sorry. We’ll fix it. How are you today?”
“I’m the veteran,” was all I said.
The woman stopped walking, shocked. “Oh. I didn’t…uh…I didn’t realize girls got injured in the military,” she offered weakly, her voice trailing off in complete confusion.
“Yeah. It happens.” That’s all I could think to say.
Thus was my introduction to life as a female veteran.
Once, during a ceremony at Mount Rushmore, the tour guide asked the veterans in the group to raise their hands. When I raised my hand, he glared at me and practically spat out “Darlin, I mean military veterans. Not their wives. You don’t serve.”
Another time, I sat in a pre-deployment brief filled to the brim with wives when the fiery boot lieutenant fresh from IOC and heading up the Remain Behind Element demanded that all the staff sergeants stand up. Then the sergeants. Then the corporals and so on and so forth. Confused, all kinds of wives stood up when their husband’s ranks were named. Then he shouted for everyone to sit down because none of them had earned any rank. I stayed standing.
He raced up to me and screamed right in my face to sit the f*ck down because I’d never served a day in my life. When I simply told him I was in the Marines, he walked away and never spoke another word to me.
It’s a thing, and it’s a fairly common thing that every female service member and veteran will experience, and often.
In fact, it’s such a common situation that female veterans and service members barely blink when it happens, and male veterans and service members don’t even realize it’s happening.
Recently, I asked some of my female veterans and active duty service member friends to share their experiences on being female veterans with me. I wasn’t at all surprised by some of the responses.
There is a female pilot that works with my husband. Every time she calls somewhere, she gets asked for her husband’s social. Prior to the Marines, she was a cop, so you’d think she’d be used to it and have found a solid way to avoid this. No. Even my own husband used to refer to her as “the female pilot” instead of just by her name like the rest of his buddies. It’s annoying as hell. Also, she isn’t even married.
Another friend, who went into finance post-Army, spoke about how, in the military, we are taught that we have to work twice as hard to appear to be half as professional as our male counterparts. It sucks but it’s true. We had an entire period of instruction in Marine bootcamp about having to hold ourselves to a far higher standard in order to be seen as even remotely equal to our male peers. But in the civilian world, doing that makes her seem “unapproachable” or “too intimidating,” and she gets told to “be more feminine.” How civilians equate “be more feminine” with “don’t be as professional as your male counterparts” is beyond me, but it’s a thing.
Then there is the female pilot who was told she probably should find a way to get out of SERE school (it’s required for all pilots) because what if she has her period during SERE? Sorry to break it to you, dudes, but periods happen. And, in case you didn’t know, our periods don’t alert bears or the Taliban to our presence.
Or the female who got promoted meritoriously to corporal and staff sergeant (in different commands, several years apart) and got asked several times (in complete seriousness) after each promotion who she sucked off to get the promotion. How many male service members get asked that after a feat like TWO meritorious promotions?
There is the reservist, who is also a new mother. At her last battle assembly, she inquired about where she could go to pump. Her commander stared at her like she’d grown three heads and refused to speak to her for the rest of the time. Also note, men: women have breasts, and after a baby, they require pumping. No one is asking for special treatment, just directions to the nearest head to dump some of her milk into a freaking bag.
That’s part of the problem. If a female asks to be treated with an ounce of respect, she’s accused of trying to get special treatment, so she doesn’t ask. She doesn’t demand or insist. For the most part, the female service members and veterans just suck it up and accept it as part of being a girl; they have to be careful around the fragile egos that might get offended if she acts like she might be an equal.
And if she has the audacity to, say, write a noncontroversial article about female grooming standards in the military? She gets ripped to shreds and accused of not even being a veteran based on her photo next to her byline.
Because we all know female veterans don’t color their hair. And male veterans don’t put on 50lbs and grow beards when they get out.