It seems simple enough. I served, too! In the US Army, for eight years and even deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. But I and thousands of other women vets, many also married to a veteran, are always overlooked, not only by the public, but also our fellow veterans and the systems that serve us. I do have to say thanks to my hubby, though. Dave always has my back and usually, to my dismay, offers up my veteran status to those thanking him. Some people are even surprised by the fact that I served, with an exaggerated reply of “Oh really?!?,” as if it’s the 1920s and not 2020. Speaking of, a few years back while getting gas, I was approached by a young guy no more than 18. As he walks into the gas station in passing, he says, “Cool, I didn’t know chicks could get Purple Hearts.” I saw red and couldn’t believe what I heard. I didn’t say anything that day, but I regret that.
I sometimes still don’t say anything because really, it’s not worth it, but I have gotten better because unfortunately, it still happens A LOT –– at the VA, when accessing my benefits, even when I’m out and about wearing something that says veteran. Thanks for coming out to support your husband. No, I’m a veteran too, usually followed by apologies. I get we’re not easy to identify, we’re not typically in camo or veteran apparel, and we don’t all subscribe to the high and tight haircut our male counterparts are known for, but we’re here and increasing in numbers. We’re currently 25% of the veteran population with approximately 9% of us serving in combat operations.
Although not intentional in most cases, having my service ignored or breezed over stings. When I was in the Army, especially during my time in Iraq, I was consistently told by those around me that I wasn’t good enough to be there, simply because I’m a woman. Once you hear that often enough, it sticks and you spend a lot of time going above and beyond to prove your worth. For me this caused, and still causes, bouts of panic and out of control anxiety and should I feel any performance is less than stellar, look out depression here I come. I know these thoughts to be untrue, but they’re so invasive and HUGE! Sometimes they occupy me for weeks at a time, despite my skills and supports. When I first started my healing journey, I didn’t allow myself to feel the emotions I was experiencing as I thought this was resiliency. Now though I feel and repurpose my negativity so as to not consume me entirely while it lingers.
One of the many ways I repurpose is my work through NAMI and being the female veteran. Sharing my story and speaking to the stigma of not only mental health in the military but what it means to be a woman in a man’s world. Doing so has allowed me to cross paths with some amazing women veterans working tirelessly among us to improve veterans’ systems and culture of the veteran space to be more than a good ol’ boys club. One inclusive of all who served, because we’re veterans too.
About the Author: Nikki Dawson is the Advocacy Director at NAMI Keystone PA. She joined NAMI in 2017 as an intern while completing her Master’s degree in Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh. Prior to her involvement with NAMI, Nikki worked in veteran homelessness and homelessness prevention services as a case manager and outreach coordinator.
Nikki served in the US Army for eight years as a Cryptologic Linguist and Signals Intelligence Analyst. In 2009 she deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom with the 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Calvary Division out of Ft. Hood, TX. She is married to her husband David who is also a combat veteran.