The road home can be a long one for women who have served in the military. The transition is wrought with challenges common among all veterans, yet female service persons face unique challenges. The women featured in this article have had varying experiences, but they share a common thought: Each is glad she served our country and notes the strength it took to transition back into civilian life. The landscape of returning to “everyday routines and responsibilities” presents numerous hills and valleys of opportunities, concerns and physical and emotional adjustments.
I remember meeting a friend for coffee, and she went on and on about how difficult it was to stand in line to get her beverage; and I thought, ‘Boy, I can’t handle this conversation,’” shares Jennifer Shumaker, a member of the National Guard since 1988. “It was trivial after what I had been through. My perspective had changed. It humbled me. I don’t take things for granted.” Jennifer had been deployed several times throughout her service tenure, but her time in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010 was the most difficult. Leaving her family was the hardest. Shumaker notes that in addition to the extreme adjustments of living in a developing country, adapting to the military routine takes some getting used to. “At home, I was responsible for my family, and then, all of a sudden, there’s someone telling you what to do,” she says. “You live, eat and breathe service.” The life Shumaker returned to when she transitioned home was not the same as the one she left. “Your family moves on, learns to adapt without you,” she says, “and then Mom comes home, and you think you are stepping right back into the life you had; and it isn’t there.” But Shumaker counts herself lucky. “I have a great support system, and I work at a job that allows me to help others, Southeastern Minnesota Center for Independent Living,” she states. Shumaker is also very active with Beyond the Yellow Ribbon, the local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and a support group for those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), among others. “It’s very therapeutic to be involved.” STRUGGLING WITH RE-ENTRY Lucy Barth was thankful to be welcomed home with open arms. She began serving in the Army National Guard in 2001 and was in Iraq during 2004 and 2005. But when the fanfare of her return ended, she found herself remembering what happened during her service.
Here I was, a 20-year-old and was not prepared for what I experienced,” she remembers. “I didn’t know what to expect.” After she was diagnosed with PTSD, Barth knew she needed help to readjust. “It was hard, and I had to get past what happened,” Barth says. “I saw a VA [Veterans Affairs] therapist for a year, and using the tools I was given, I learned to accept my experiences and realized it is part of who I am. It can’t define me.” Barth decided to become a nurse and attended college until she was deployed again to Afghanistan in 2009. “This time, coming home, I had direction,” she says. “I knew what the next step was in my life plan. My family and friends were a huge support.” In 2012, Barth graduated as a registered nurse. She feels her experiences during her last deployment help her be a better emergency room nurse at Olmsted Medical Center. Recently, she re-enlisted until 2020, with hopes of serving as a flight medic. “It may sound strange, but ideally, I’d like to be called for active duty,” Barth states. “Before, there was nothing I could do to help, but now I know what to do. I want to help my fellow comrades.”
A LITTLE EASIER
As a member of the Army from 2000 to 2004, Sarah Stamper served in Germany and Korea. During her service, she met a fellow soldier, who is now her husband. Recalling her time in the service, Stamper talks about all the things she learned. “I’m a different person because of my service,” she states. When she joined the Army immediately after high school, Stamper “flew by the seat of [her] pants.” From her time in service, she learned about leadership and became more positive and less shy. “It was one of the best decisions of my life,” she says. After serving 10 years, Stamper left the service to raise her family. “Since then, I’ve been a stay-at-home mom because my husband remains in the service today,” she says. Stamper sees how transition to civilian life may have been easier for her than others because so much of her life is still focused on the military. She has been involved with Family Readiness Group, serving as the liaison between military members and their families, offering support and a variety of services. She has also returned to school to become a medical assistant.
MOMENTS OF FRUSTRATION
In 1991, Jean Loecher joined the Navy and became a hydraulic mechanic. In 1995, she entered the Marines and worked as a helicopter electrician. After meeting and serving together in the military, she and her husband decided to focus their lives on serving in the armed forces. The Loechers liked the structure of living on-base among military families. “We had most everything in common with others around us,” she says. “When we came home, all that changed.” After returning abruptly to civilian life, there were major adjustments. Everyday choices, like what to wear to work and what to eat, were stressful. And work was not as clear-cut. A casualty of recent IBM layoffs, Loecher recognizes that the hard work and self-discipline she learned in the military have helped her be successful in starting her own business and going back to school She works diligently to help those in the military by volunteering with Soldiers Wings, an organization that sends care packages to service men and women, and the Marine Corp League. “It’s important to continue to give to our country one way or another,” she states. She also serves in uniform as part of the Honor Guard at the VFW and American Legion. “Some of the older Vets stare,” she shares. “I want to say, ‘Women are Vets too!’” The transition home from serving is never completely smooth, but with adequate resources and a support network, women are able to adjust to life at home. Lucy Barth may have summed it up best, saying, “Everything happens for a reason. Coming home, you have to figure out how your experiences can make you a stronger, better person.”
“SERVICE: WHEN WOMEN COME MARCHING HOME”
This film “highlights the special challenges facing disabled female veterans as they transition from active duty to civilian life.” SERVICE provides open and closed groups on Facebook where women can exchange information, find friendship and share solutions that have changed their lives. The DAV magazine calls women “the most rapidly shifting demographic within the veterans’ community.” Women currently make up 14 percent of today’s military, and the number is expected to double in the next eight years.
Debi Neville is a Rochester freelance writer whose husband, Pat, has helped her understand the challenges all veterans face and to truly appreciate their service and sacrifice to our country.