To volunteer for military service is to prove one’s own heroism – there is simply no other fitting definition of the act. Most people filling this vital role would never describe themselves as heroes, of course; rather, they would say they are simply doing a job, a humble service for their country they are able and willing to perform. But the fact of the matter is that these people are offering up their lives, giving years of their youth and risking serious injury and even death, for the protection of the rest of us back home who can only offer a prayer for their safety in quiet gratitude. And while all military service members face terrible challenges when they come home and attempt to readjust to life as a civilian, there is little discussion of the special difficulties confronting our women in uniform.
Soldiers who face combat as part of their tour of duty have it very hard. In addition to the terrible reality of seeing battle, not knowing whether they will live so much as another hour, let alone long enough to see their loved ones again, the experience itself traumatizes a person in ways that stick with them for life. The demands of a war zone are very different from those upon us at home. Women facing this kind of danger learn to become hyper-aware, to jump at shadows, to form bonds stronger than blood with their comrades at arms and to warily distrust anyone else. This makes it hard for them to reassimilate when it’s time to come home. That’s when not only they, but their families must pay the price for their service, finding that their mother, daughter, or sister has a hard time opening up and being emotionally vulnerable – even to those who love them the most. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a very real demon haunting countless veterans, and despite therapy and medication, there is often nothing that can be done to help these people fully recover.
Rifts can also form between returning women and their families, as the person who has lived in a constantly life-threatening hell of violence and danger comes to realize that their loved ones simply cannot understand what they have been through, or by extension, them. It becomes impossible to relate to their own family members, even when they want to, because only another combat veteran can possibly know what they are dealing with. This can lead women to seek divorce from husbands who no longer really know them, ripping entire families apart. Seeking refuge from their daily torment in chemical bliss, drug abuse is common. In extreme cases, isolated and lonely former soldiers may commit suicide, even the hell of war that they survived proving no match for life in a peaceful world where no one gets you anymore.
Sadly, private employers are one group who are well aware of the emotional stress such people are under, and they are known for taking steps to protect themselves. It is notoriously difficult for returning veterans to find civilian work, as they often have difficulty working in groups under non-wartime conditions, and the heavy burden of the memories they carry can make them irritable and unpleasant to interact with casually. Business owners too often avoid them as a result. They are quick to show them the door, too, a single emotional outburst causing a former soldier to be labeled mentally unstable while a more mundane person would be forgiven for having simply had a “bad day”.
Despite the availability of government programs to assist returning veterans in adjusting to civilian life, providing for them when they have a hard time finding work, and caring for their medical needs when they are injured in battle, it is not enough. It never could be. There simply would not be a United States of American without these people – how could the country that owes them its very existence ever mete out their just recompense? But more needs to be done, and it must be organized at the community level. Let churches band together, devoting a percentage of their tithe money to helping former soldiers get along. Let private citizens take action, pooling their own resources to come to the aid of those who were willing to die to protect them. Let each individual give over just one day to finding and thanking as many soldiers as they are able – after all, they’ll have the rest of their lives to do whatever they wish, while the people they are thanking very nearly didn’t.
It’s never too late to show our gratitude to the people who give so much to keep us free, and to acknowledge that while it’s easy for no one, women face special hardships in doing this noble job. They had our backs in a dangerous foreign land; the least we can do is show them that we’ve got theirs back at home.