If you picture a typical military veteran, is your image male or female? If it’s male, you’re not alone.
“When we tell people we’ve served, they think we’re the spouses of service members, not that we have served,” said retired Army Sgt. 1st Class Tanya Smith of Dunwoody.
“When I first started making civilian friends and told them I had jumped out of airplanes, they would go, ‘What?’” said Carmen Morales of Brookhaven, the first woman in the Georgia Army National Guard to reach the rank of command sergeant major, the highest an enlisted soldier can achieve.
These are but the tip of the iceberg for women military vets transitioning to civilian life. For most of them, serving in the military wasn’t what they did. It was who they were and still are – women committed to leadership, self-discipline and personal accountability. And for years they lived and worked with people who defined themselves the same way.
In addition to the challenges facing their male counterparts — finding employment and a place to live, getting healthcare and understanding their benefits — some studies in the early 2000s suggested they are more likely to be facing them alone due to lower marriage rates and higher divorce rates.
One veteran who learned that the hard way is former Navy Lt. Amy Stevens, who holds a doctorate in education and is a licensed professional counselor.
After 11 years of active duty and a medical discharge, she began work at Johns Hopkins University on her master of science degree. The single mother of a special-needs child, with no one to help with childcare, no health insurance and medical bills of $30,000, she and her son survived by being “essentially homeless” for six months.
“I sold my house and my nice car, bought a used car, rented a room from a church lady and had my son stay with a friend,” she said.
She came to Atlanta for a job with the U.S. Department of Labor, where she worked for 11 years, along with two part-time jobs to pay off her medical debts. She eventually reconnected with the military as the director of psychological health for the Georgia National Guard, where she provided counseling sessions.
“People told me everything,” she said. And what she heard was often troubling.
When she left the National Guard in 2012, she decided to provide a resource for women veterans and invited a few women friends from the Guard to join her “in a little Facebook group” called “Georgia Military Women.”
It grew into a private, members-only Facebook club called “GA Military Women,” open to all of the state’s female veterans, who number nearly 93,000, according to the Georgia Department of Veterans Services.
“We are not a support group. No drama, politics or religion allowed. Just ladies hanging out with others who know what it is like to serve,” is the group’s self-description on a public Facebook page for the group.
The club has no dues or budget. It’s a private place online where the almost 4,000 members can get vital information about veterans services, ask and answer questions, share successes and disappointments, help members in need, and organize member events throughout the state.
“Women vets are natural leaders,” said Stevens. “I have more than 50 leaders around the state [who organize events].”
“We’re all welcome at all events,” said Morales.
Stevens posts ceremonies, concerts and other public events on the public page. Especially popular before the pandemic were the free veterans’ tickets to the Atlanta Opera.
Lately, the group has been discussing coronavirus-related issues like using the Veterans Affairs services, National Guard call-ups, and making surgical masks.
“It’s where we connect with our sisters in arms,” said Smith.
“A lot of people appreciate people who serve but think we joined because we didn’t have any options,” said Morales. “But we wanted to serve. Everybody in ‘GA Military Women’ gets this. You don’t have to feel weird.”
“I wouldn’t change the trajectory of my journey at all,” said Smith, who gave up her position as director of New Jersey’s largest juvenile male offenders program to join the Army as a military intelligence linguist.
As civilians, all three women are continuing their life of service.
Morales is a program analyst at the Social Security Administration. Smith travels the world as a leadership consultant and author. Stevens serves as a Red Cross disaster mental health manager and chief of women Veterans and chief healthcare officer at VETLANTA, a veterans networking and community service club.
All Georgia women veterans are invited to join by entering GA Military Women in the Facebook search bar and following directions.