“There Was Beauty & There Was Horror — Both Coexisted”

This story was originally published on June 30, 2015.
After she finished her stint in Iraq, Lyndsey Anderson walked into the financial aid office at the university where she’d returned to get her master's. She remembers asking the loan officer about aid for veterans. Reflexively, he asked her, “Was it your husband or your dad?”
Women, who currently make up about a 10th of the 20 million Americans with military experience, are the fastest growing group of veterans in the country. But Lyndsey, 31, who spent about 13 months in Baghdad with the National Guard, says assumptions like the one that day at her school aren’t uncommon: When the average person imagines a veteran, they’re more likely to picture a gray-bearded Vietnam vet than her. “I certainly don’t think I fit into the stereotype of what a veteran is,” she says.
The military’s own attitudes towards women are undergoing some of the biggest shifts in its history: In 2013, then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta rescinded a 1994 rule banning women from serving in combat roles, and since then each branch has begun a slow move to integration. Around 95% of military jobs are now open to women. Just this February, the first group of women passed the first round of Army Ranger training, a program notorious for being among the service’s most physically demanding.
Women in uniform still face a unique and harrowing set of challenges: Sexual assault and harassment still occur at epidemic levels, with 20,000 reported incidents of “unwanted sexual contact” in 2014 alone. Moreover, A recent study by The New York Times found two-thirds of women who reported an assault said they’d been retaliated against. When they return home, they face the added difficulties of re-integration: dealing with injuries, trauma, navigating healthcare at the VA, and re-entering the economy.
And yet, of the more than half a dozen vets we interviewed, most told us they were proud of their service and the barriers they were able to break down while in uniform. This story was originally published on May 11, 2015. Interviews have been condensed and edited.
Photographed by Peter Hapak.
Jenny Pacanowski, 35
Army, 2003-2008
I’d gone to college and dropped out numerous times. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I had $40,000 in debt, and in three weeks my house burned down and I got in a car accident. So, that got the process started.
My father was a Marine, and I wanted to go into something medical, to find job that would transfer to the civilian world. So, I joined at 23.
Do you remember that moment when Bush stood on that aircraft carrier, and he was like, "Mission Accomplished!"? Iraq was not supposed to be a 10-year war. And, since I was going to be in medical, and I was a woman, I thought that I wouldn’t go into combat. I did go into combat, but the pretense was that it wouldn’t happen to me.
A recruiter told me “You’re a woman, you’re going to be in a hospital." My title, in the military, was healthcare specialist slash — slashes get you every time — combat medic. Which one do you think I was? [Laughs]
I got orders to Germany, and I thought all my dreams were coming true. I was like, "Yes! A tour of Europe, work during the day, have weekends off, live the life, right?" No. I was in Germany for a month and they were like, "You’re going to Iraq."
When we went in, it was like the kids were waving. I got to go into a village and do physicals on the kids, give them cough drops, really be a part of the community. We were rebuilding schools.
And then, my job changed to doing medical support for convoys. There were IEDs, the fucking bombs. The snipers, the RPGs, the small arms fire. I don’t know, I think the two worst things were the explosions — and there’s a particular sound, when bullets smack on metal. You kinda hear it in that movie Saving Private Ryan, when they storm the beach. It’s like pnk, pnk, it’s like that. That sound fucks me all up.
Coming back, leaving the conformity and feeling all the disillusionment and the betrayal was so hard. I got into a protracted legal battle with the army after they refused to pay my student loans. I was job-jumping, and pretty soon alcohol became a key factor in my self-destruction.
I didn’t want to go into the medical stuff anymore after Iraq. I got okay-paying jobs at, like, factories and security. But, even security was too weird for me. I didn’t want to be in a uniform anymore. My PTSD was starting to show, but it was easier to be drunk and unemployed than someone with a mental disorder.
The main thing was the driving. I was always looking for bombs. And, I was always having flashbacks when I was driving. It was really dangerous for me and for other people — I was driving around thinking like I was still in Iraq. It was pretty fucking horrible.
Then, I started to just not get out of bed. The bane of my existence was making it to four o’clock, and then I’d start drinking and do the whole thing over again. I was going to the VA at the time, on six to eight medications, and they were making me dizzy or loopy, terrible side effects, plus drinking.
The definition of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is "human reaction to extraordinary circumstances." That was a big realization: Oh, I’m human. That’s why I reacted this way.
Do I identify as a veteran? Well, I got it tattooed on my arm, so I’m kind of stuck with it now. I’ve been doing a lot of veteran advocacy, and there would be times when people would come up to me and be like, "Oh, you’re so passionate! Are you someone’s wife?" I’d be like, "Argh! I should’ve gotten it on my forehead!" I got really angry about that for a long time, but then I realized it gave me an opportunity to educate.
Everyone has their own war: internal, external — trauma can come from a car accident, from childhood. I mean, life sucks, right? So, let’s be a community and help each other out. There’s an old saying, "Carry the burden of war together." Let’s carry the burdens together.
Photographed by Peter Hapak.
Anu Bhagwati, 40
Marine Corps, 1999-2004
I had just started grad school — very much on the traditional path, studying international affairs and journalism. But then, I met a bunch of Navy SEALs in New York. I’d always wanted to see how far I could push my limits, and so I ended up in a Navy recruiting station. Little did I know, I couldn’t be a Navy SEAL because I'm a woman — that both pissed me off and inspired me. So, I chose the next best thing for me, which was the Marine Corps, the most extreme thing I could legally do. That was 1999.
I remember vividly one time during a training we were doing fireman’s carry. The guys I trained with were probably just what you’d imagine: huge, burly dudes. So, I made it a point to practice with the biggest guy — just grab a guy who was 80 or 90 pounds heavier than me and trudge him up a hill. The instructors are just rolling their eyes, like "Stupid, stubborn girl, what is she trying to prove?" I was always like: "You expect nothing of me, therefore I am going to show you that I can do so much more."
At one point, I blew out my knee — like, my kneecap was not where it was supposed to be — and just wrapped it up and kept going. Because, when you’re one woman out of so few, if I dropped out, what would it mean for all of us? I probably will have knee injuries for the rest of my life. I’ll be hobbling when I’m 50. But, I did it.
I was in for five years and I wanted to stay in. I honestly loved it, even all the bullshit and the sucking up, the general attitude towards women. I really loved the people. Working with really talented people, it’s hard not to love them. There was horror, and there was beauty. Both things coexisted.
I went out in a blaze of hurt and trauma. I had filed a sexual harassment investigation against a fellow officer — and these things are not looked upon kindly. But, I knew I couldn't look myself in the mirror unless I did it. I had deeper values. Not Marine Corps, military values, but values that said, “If somebody’s being hurt, if I’m being hurt, I need to stand up for them.”
Would I rather be the person who lost my career because I stuck up for somebody, or somebody who stayed in and did all the things I wanted to do, but didn’t have the integrity? It’s a hard choice.
When I got out, I was reeling from all sorts of trauma: sexual harassment, discrimination — just daily, hourly. It was so consistent. Then, when the armor came off, when I was no longer in uniform, I no longer had reason to be this invincible. I was like, holy crap, I’ve been through hell.
Photographed by Peter Hapak.
Maria Mia Salazar, 34
Marine Corps, 2002-2011
My dad wanted me to become a lawyer, so I got my paralegal degree, figuring I could put myself through law school. But, one day, I saw the police running, ready to go to boot camp, and it just hit me: I want to do this. That was Saturday afternoon. On Monday, I went to the office and was like, "How do I sign up?" The recruiter looked at me kind of funny — I was in heels and a suit — and he was like, "Are you sure?" I said, “Yes, I want to be in the Marines.” I was 22.
Being a female in the Marines, you really have to pull your weight. You get divided into two categories: the females who are weak and always need help from the males, or the strong females who stand shoulder to shoulder with them. From the beginning, if you position yourself as someone who’s just as strong, just as fast, and just as capable as the men are, it’s not a problem. When I was in Iraq, I was the only female out of 59 guys in the forward party. It was one of the best things I’ve done in my life.
I don’t know if I was lucky, but I never got sexually harassed or anything like that. That stuff is out there — I’ve known friends who were sexually assaulted while overseas, and a lot of times it was shoved aside because they didn't want to make a big fuss about it — but personally, I never had to deal with that.
I had my daughter in 2004. The first time they sent me out on a training mission she was a year and a half. That was when I knew I wasn’t going to last that long.
The year she started school, my company was on rotation to get sent to Afghanistan. I’ve always talked to my daughter; we’re open. I said, "What do you think if Mommy stays in the Marines?" And she said, "What if they send you away?"And I said, "Well, they might." And she’s like, "What if you get killed?" And that was it. It was over. I did my 10 years.
The other day my son — my twins are a year old — picked up a book called Marine Riflemen. He was walking around with it, and my heart just sank for a minute. I was like, "Oh my god, you can’t. You can’t be a Marine too." Part of me was super proud, but the mom part of me was like, “Oh, no.” Hopefully by the time he’s of age, there won’t be any wars for him to fight.
When people find out I’m a Marine, they’re like, "What? You don’t look like a Marine." What, am I supposed to have a shaved head? Some men get a little intimidated when they find out — you can see them starting to try to act tough. I actually like it when people find out I’m a veteran. Just because I have long hair doesn’t mean I can’t shoot somebody and defend my family, defend our freedom.
For me, it was about the challenge and the pride. That embodies my whole military experience: testing myself, and being proud of what I did.
Photographed by Peter Hapak.
Jennifer Blain, 32
Army Reserve, 2005-2009
I was raised Independent Fundamental Baptist, which is super conservative. I grew up in this very conservative home where there are two phrases, two ideas that are lifted up: God and country.
I’ve known I’m transgender from three or four years old, and not because I played with Barbies. It felt like there was something wrong with my body. I realized I couldn’t be who I was, so I started asking, well then who I am going to be? I started with God — I became a Baptist preacher, and then I enlisted.
There’s a stereotype about trans women in the military that they do it to reinforce their "maleness." For me, that wasn’t the case; it was a value that I wanted to live out. To serve one’s country was the highest calling.
When I enlisted, they shipped me out to Fort Leonard Wood, MO, which is where the military police school is. They call it Fort Lost-In-The-Woods, Misery. It’s just a spot in the middle of nowhere.
That’s where everything changed for me. I was living as a man, but knowing that I was not, and a fellow trainee assaulted me. It happened at a point in Basic Training when you really are reshaping your identity. So, I’m living someone else’s identity, and then the military’s being incorporated into that identity, and now I’m surviving this assault and that’s being programmed in. And I’m being told it’s not big deal, it’s hazing, I can deal with it. Drill Sergeants found out about it, laughed it off.
I was in the Reserves, so after Basic, it was one weekend a month, two weeks a year, and I think I’m fine. I talk about how fine I am, everything’s great, and I love my job — and I did love being in the military. I absolutely, thoroughly enjoyed it. Except for the fact that I was pretending like nothing had happened.
When I started transitioning, I was transitioning within the veteran community. The response of the women veterans I met was uniformly, "You’re one of us." That was a really powerful experience, coming out. Because, in many ways, experiencing the military as a transgender woman, closeted, is different than experiencing it as a woman. But, it’s also very different than experiencing it as a guy.
Now, I’m open about having served, but it’s part of who I am, it’s not who I am. At my job I work with veterans, and I talk about being a veteran. But, I also talk about having been a Baptist preacher. I talk about having grown up a boy, I talk about how different pieces of my identity are just that, they’re pieces of who I am.
I can’t count the number of times that I’ve gotten weird looks when I say that I was in the military. Because, I don’t look like I served in the military. In fact, if someone knows the transgender policies in the military, they would say, "There’s no way you could have served in the military." So I say, "I was an MP for four years." And they’re like, "Really?" I’m constantly having to validate my service. Prove it, if you will.
I live in Massachusetts in the middle of what’s called the five college area — Smith College, Mount Holyoke, etc. — and that liberal, academic environment is usually beneficial. But then, sometimes I say I’m a veteran, and they instantly associate me with the super-conservative, "rah-rah, go U.S.A." aspect of things. Because I was a veteran, I volunteered, people have yelled “You volunteered to kill brown people!” at me. It’s like, "No, not exactly!"
Usually it’s a dichotomy. I’m either a veteran, or a I’m a trans woman. Those two don’t intersect. I was working with a veterans' group in 2010 just after I came out, and I knew I had transitioned, and I knew I was accepted as a woman, because I got told to stop being a bitch. [Laughs] We were in a meeting talking about a contentious point; I was sticking to my guns, and I got told to stop being a bitch — that’s when I knew I had transitioned! I was accepted as a woman in the veterans' community, ‘cause I got mansplained. [Laughs]
Photographed by Peter Hapak.
Katelyn Sheehan, 26
Air Force, 2007-2011
I signed up at 17. I graduated high school early and went to community college, but it was not really something I could afford.
People just assume that you’ve got this patriotic, “Hoo-rah, I want defend stuff” attitude. Really, it was more like: How do I begin life in a position where I’m not fighting to pay for an expense I’ve already made? I really ended up joining the military just for the college benefits. A lot of us do that.
I ended up on a linguist mission, but as a supply and logistics person. We collect intelligence from radio signals from chemical signatures in the air. We can go fly over, grab some of that air, and decide whether or not it’s of a nuclear nature. And then, you can also identify where those things came from, which is pretty crazy.
So, we would be ready in Okinawa, Japan; or Diego Garcia Island, which is gorgeous; Greece; England, all these pretty cool spots. You just wait for your mission, and then you have to be tires off the tarmac really quickly. I'm the logistics person who finds out, "Hey, all of our stuff has to be on the other side of the Earth in three hours." And, we have a lot of stuff.
People ask me if I would recommend it. Sometimes, I feel like yeah, and sometimes I feel like, oh fuck no, absolutely not. If I’m speaking specifically about women, it's financially an awesome way to start life. I left the military with savings, and with something on my résumé that got me jobs. In terms of why I wouldn’t recommend it, the harassment is just through the roof — and the stats are so wrong. I have a hard time finding female veterans who haven’t had experiences with at least harassment.
I was assigned to be a sexual assault victim’s advocate for my unit. I wasn’t sure that I was sensitive enough for it — I’ve always been the rough-and-tumble kind of gal — but I really liked it. I worked with the survivors of sexual assault, but also advocated for them. That meant standing up to the captain of security forces who is literally interrogating a victim of sexual assault. I can stand there and, when he says, "Airman Blank, do you know who you’re talking to?" I could say, "Well, Captain, sir, you don’t outrank the regulation." It was attractive to me because it took a lot of guts.
If someone who wasn’t an American acted out in such a criminal way against our armed forces, in a way that is so quantifiably destructive to our force's ability to do its mission, we would have already dropped bombs on them. We lose more soldiers to sexual assault in the military than we do to combat.
A year ago, I got hired to be a facilitator for Vet to Vet, a veterans’ peer networking group. Through that, I ended up learning about Veterans Expeditions. This isn’t going to translate on the tape, but you should know that I’m freaking beaming because I love Veterans Expeditions. They have completely changed my life. I have changed majors, I’m now going into adventure therapy because of these guys.
Lyndsey Anderson, 31
Army National Guard, 2001-2007
The recruiters came to my high school in Ankeny, IA. We were rappelling down the bleachers. I was kind of being a smartass, and I said “Maybe I’m gonna join!" This girl said, "You could never do that!" So, I told the recruiter to write my name down.
I really had no intention of joining, but then they called, and they said, "Hey, there are all these great benefits; you can get out of Iowa if you do this." So, I joined the National Guard.
I did Basic between by junior and senior years of high school, went off to college, and then I got the call. Literally, the person on the other end of the phone said, and I quote, "Quit your job. Quit school. You’re being deployed"
We thought that maybe we would go to Germany to take over the active duty there, in the air they were like, "We’re going to Baghdad." When I joined, I was pretty sure I was going to stay here. That was my impression of the National Guard — Nation! It’s in the title! — but I was excited for the adventure.
When we landed, I had no idea what was going on. I literally was just a child with my gun out a window. Before that, I probably in total had held a gun 15 times in my life. And then, it became an appendage for a year.
There were some moments that were very scary. We’d go to bed every night with 50-cal. machine guns outside. Mortar rounds do come on post. But, it was also my first exposure to people in the States from different backgrounds — I definitely had never met anyone from a foreign country, and I enjoyed getting to know a new culture. For a time, I guarded eight civilian Iraqis, and we became very close. So, it really built a lot of compassion for the "other," if you will.
I was very conscious to do everything that the men were doing, to give 130%. We would do runs and I would literally vomit, never let someone carry my pack. I think I gained respect that way. I don’t want to say that being a woman, we should always try to do the things that men do, but I think never let your femininity be an excuse for not doing the job.
I’ve been successful — I’m finishing a second graduate degree, I live in New York City — but I struggled when I came home. I don’t think resentment is quite the word, but I came home from just living in fear for a year, and to girls like, "Oh my god, that skirt’s cute!" I had no tolerance for superfluous shit. “No, it’s your turn to buy the beer." I was like, "Oh my god, I’ll buy the beer. Just let me out."
I didn’t like feeling that way — I knew I’d been that other person just two years before. I’m back in school now, and I went to the financial aid office and said I’m interested in military benefits. They said, "Spouse or daughter of a veteran?" I was like, "Thanks, man. I’m a veteran myself."
In some ways I think I’m still the Token Veteran. I work at an art museum. Few people know veterans, and I certainly don’t think I fit into the stereotype of what a veteran is. But, if anything, it’s an opportunity to change their minds. I’m also a very liberal person. Not everyone who joins or deploys does it because they’re politically conservative or they love war. And, I have an opportunity to share the more positive stories, like the compassion that I built, to really change people’s perspective of what service is. Typically, on the news, we see people who come back totally traumatized. At the same time, there’s a lot of positive things that were built. Just sharing another side of the story is more illuminating.
Leigh Auletta, 34
Army, 2006-2014
I’m a fifth generation West Pointer. Every male on my mother’s side and my father’s side of the family served in the armed services, dating all the way back to the Revolutionary War.
For me, it was kind of a way of life. But, growing up, I never really pictured it as something for me. When I thought of the military, I thought of my dad or my grandfather, I didn’t picture a woman. I was 21, in college, and I had a revelation: Where am I going after this? I was an art major. That’s when I decided to apply to West Point.
As a woman, you are never going to be as strong, physically, as a man. But, women bring so much more to the table. We have a cooler head about things; we’re not going to explode in certain situations. Things like that, they bring a different dimension to the military.
I deployed to Iraq and went to air assault school, where I learned how to rappel out of helicopters. At the time, physically, it wasn’t all that difficult for me, but I also was training for the Military World Olympics — I played soccer, and got to compete in Hyderabad, India — so I was at the peak of physical fitness. Now, I’m not so sure. [Laughs]
In all my time in the military, I was extremely fortunate to have amazing bosses; my senior officers never treated me differently, never looked at me a different way. They were always professional. They’re my mentors. They were family men, respected by everybody, and I was very lucky. There was never a situation where I felt like I was being mistreated or anything like that.
The military totally shaped me into the person I am today. I would’ve stayed in active duty forever, but we had our son. My unit was getting ready to leave for Afghanistan and he was only three months old…and I just couldn’t. I now have three kids, four and under, with my fourth on the way.
You do all this training — you train and train and train in the military — but there’s no training to come back into civilian life again. It’s a tough transition, especially if you’re going back to a small hometown where maybe not many people have been in the military, and some people have different views on why we should be at war. But, that’s when we need to remember it’s not about the war, it’s about the warrior. That’s who you have to take care of when they come back. It can be hard for people to understand, but a lot of wounds are wounds that you can’t see.
I’m very blessed with an amazing family and an awesome husband who’s military. So, we both understand what it’s like to deploy, and we both understand what it’s like to come back home, and we have each other. It’s not the same situation for everybody, but I’m very lucky; my family has been dealing with coming back from war, and how it changes you, for a very long time.
Ed note: The group of women mentioned in the introduction, attempting Army Ranger training, failed the second leg of training after this article was published. They'll be allowed to re-attempt it.

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