Shattering stereotypes

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DAV celebrates Women’s History Month

Naomi Mathis was part of a security team for a convoy of more than 50 vehicles May 13, 2003, in Iraq. The adult man in the photo ran to the convoy and yelled, “Bush good! Saddam bad!” After realizing he wasn’t a threat, Mathis and others gave the man and child some water and posed for this photo. Shortly after this photo was taken, the convoy was attacked and one of her fellow airmen was killed.

American women—from Deborah Sampson, who disguised herself as a man during the Revolutionary War, to the first women to become infantry Marines in 2017—have served in various critical roles throughout the nation’s military history.

But stereotypes and changing social roles often contribute to the unique challenges some women veterans experience.

Dr. Barbara Arrighi, professor emerita of sociology at Northern Kentucky University, notes that as industrialization began to replace farming as a primary livelihood for most citizens in early 19th century America, men largely moved toward factories and offices—considered unfit places for women at that time. That sentiment shaped the concept of segregated working conditions and rigid gender roles for men and women.

“Women were viewed as the standard bearer of virtue and moral values, and the workplace was anathema to the purity necessary for motherhood,” said Arrighi. “Men were to be ‘good’ providers and women were to devote themselves to hearth and home. Thus, the divergent societal expectations for women and men became institutionalized. Vestiges of it are still evident, even though rigid gender roles are less feasible in today’s economic environment.”

Today, there are more than 2 million women veterans and just over 214,000 active-duty females, and their roles have been skewing closer to combat for decades. Of the 58,318 names inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, eight belong to women—including Annie Ruth Graham, whose wartime service spanned World War II, Korea and Vietnam. In contrast, 167 have died in Iraq and Afghanistan and more than a thousand have been wounded in action. And their needs are evolving along with their new functions.

Arrighi echoed the sentiment that DAV has argued for years: Female veterans face different hurdles because both the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs largely remain male-centric models.

“The military is a family, but women in the military too often continue to be the ‘stepchildren,’” she said. “A report from the DAV noted that one-third of [VA] medical centers do not have a gynecologist on staff.”

DAV’s 2014 report Women Veterans: The Long Journey Home found women experience deployment and reintegration differently from their male counterparts because of their preconceived role in the military and American society. According to the study, women tend to focus more than men on how deployments disrupt interpersonal relationships and feel less social support when returning home.

“In many cases, women are saddled with a different set of expectations than men—a heavier mix of breadwinner, homemaker and child-raiser,” said National Commander Delphine Meltcalf-Foster, daughter of a Buffalo Soldier and DAV’s first female national commander. “And they’re often expected to transition seamlessly between these roles without missing a step, which can be especially difficult for someone who is also trying to manage the stress of a deployment or leaving the military.”

Naomi Mathis, of DAV Chapter 5 in Gulfport, Miss., knows this challenge all too well. After her overseas deployment, she struggled to reconnect with her children.

“All of a sudden, you look up and there are these kids that have been asked to sacrifice birthdays and all other things that civilian moms would normally be present for, and now you have them full time,” Mathis said. “Only their sacrifice doesn’t really end. They don’t have a whole mom—they have a mom that’s still dealing with a part of her identity missing. You have to learn to be a mom without the military.”

Nazly Confesor’s many deployments over her military career included service from 2011 to 2012 in Afghanistan, where she was injured by an improvised explosive device. Confesor still deals with balance problems and other issues but has overcome her injuries and now works in the government sector.

After connecting with DAV, Mathis learned about her earned benefits and began to get treatment for things that occurred as a result of military service. She wanted to give back to veterans experiencing their own transition challenges, so she became a DAV transition service officer. Now, she says her bonds with her children are stronger than ever.

“Coming home, I had both physical and mental disabilities, and trying to get my children to understand why I don’t do what ‘normal’ moms do, even though I am no longer in the military, was difficult,” Mathis said. “Now that my little kids are older, and if you ask them about it, they admit it was not easy but that they appreciate everything veterans go through.”

Rachel Fredericks, commander of DAV Chapter 38 in Troy, N.Y., said women veterans are so much more after their service than “just a housewife, or just an aunt or just a volunteer.”

“All veterans have difficulty transitioning; however, I feel with the expectations a woman has in a civilian home, it can feel more consuming than fighting for her country,” she said. “We are our own new breed of soldier—not the traditional image you’d perceive. Women veterans everywhere are breaking the mold we were given. I am proud to be a female veteran and advocate for my sisters and brothers in the armed forces.”

Nazly Confesor of DAV Chapter 10 in Fairfax, Va., deployed to Afghanistan in 2011. While on foot patrol, she suffered a concussion as a result of an improvised explosive device on Dec. 29, 2011, in the Panjwayi district, Kandahar.

For her, adjusting to life back home was a challenge.

“I had an identity issue in terms of being a civilian woman again and couldn’t relate and talk about my experiences with women who haven’t been in a combat environment,” she said.

Another shift further indicating a pressing need to restructure our support systems for veterans is that—according to the DAV report—by 2020, the woman veteran population will increase.

“I feel like society sees us as nurturers and caretakers. I shake my head in disappointment at times when people thank male service members in front of me,” Confesor said. “Our society needs to realize that women veterans are not delicate or weak. This type of perception needs to change.”


View a Timeline of Women’s Military History