Life Behind the Uniform
Women During and After Military Service
November 10, 2021
Two women, both who have served, sitting quietly. One more calm by appearance, the other with a touch of energy that is often perceived as confrontational.
The long-used, and often forgotten, cliche “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover” and “still waters run deep” are often forgotten when interacting with women like these. Appearances are often misleading, and experiences don’t necessarily line up with appearances.
Female Veterans and Military endure much, yet their trauma’s, injuries, and physical and mental scars often result in critical stares; and there are often demands to “prove” military disabilities. Those same demands are far less frequent in conversations for their male counterparts.
Not an uncommon theme for many women who served. “There’s such a double standard” says U.S. Army Veteran Ashley Tomberg. Tomberg has a Military Police background, with experience in security details that put her in unique jobs during her career. “We are who we are, everything you do shapes you” U.S. Air Force Veteran Shelly Sutherland adds. Sutherland also had a unique career, experiencing a variety of jobs and specialties throughout her time wearing an Air Force uniform.
While some disabilities are obvious (amputations, scars and the like) there are invisible disabilities too. The wear and tear on a body during rigorous military training and duties ages a person so much faster than typical exercise. Injuries common in the line of duty for those who put on a uniform can permanently damage joints, bones, muscles and nerves. Head injuries are rarely obvious to the naked eye, yet can have lasting permanent damage. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a known disability for service members, yet it tends to be more understood for males than females.
Those who have served gain certain skills and form habits that become a part of who they are. Those skills keep them, and their military family, as safe as possible during their time in uniform. But they aren’t something that can be turned on and off like a light switch. They are ingrained in a person for a reason. They need to be first nature and as natural as breathing.
From the perspective of these women, that’s where some of the double standards lie and where life outside of the uniform gets complicated.
“A man sits in a restaurant with his back to a wall, watchful and aware of his environment and it’s perceived as being protective; a woman does it and it’s being paranoid. I was trained to be aware and vigilant, to enter a room a certain way. It becomes part of who you are.” Tomberg says.
But those skills create problems for women like her. To many men have accused her of “acting masculine” and tell her she needs to try to be more feminine. As a single woman, this one action has created such discomfort with her date that she doesn’t typically end up getting asked out a second time.
“And that’s fine, I don’t 'need' someone in my life. But the double standard is ridiculous. I’m not like other women. I like physical exertion. I’m a ranch hand because I like to work. I can say as a veteran I have the same coping skills as most men,” she said.
“Those who have served often have a public persona that they have developed in order to assimilate into the civilian world. It’s a watered down version of their humor and their personality. It’s not a different person, but it does tend to be a less abrasive one.” Sutherland says. “Women often see a different expectation than the men do. In addition to societal norms, we also have gender role expectations. It’s hard to fit into those types of boxes for many of us. Frankly, many of us don’t even try. That’s where a lot of the judgment comes from.”
Tomberg and Sutherland say female veterans aren’t looking for validation. They want to be as accepted as are their male counterparts. They want the assurance they will be accepted for who they are, without needing to justify their actions.
“Women who have put on the uniform have done so proudly in the service of their country. Let’s see them as what and who they are, without any standards for who we think they should be,” Sutherland said.