In a hotel conference room in Arlington, Va., seated around an oval table with a large window view of the Potomac River, roughly 15 women had gathered for a training seminar to learn how to lead small networking groups of women like themselves. Coming from all over the country, these women, who ranged in age from their mid-30s to mid-50s, all shared one important characteristic: They had all served in the United States military, and now as civilians they were learning to adjust to life out of the uniform. During one session, a woman spoke up in a soft but clear voice about how difficult the years after leaving the service had been for her. She was homeless, often living in her car, and thought that her life would never get better. Even though she had since found housing, she said that until this point, talking with the other women in the room, she had not felt sisterhood and a sense of belonging since leaving the service.
Tara Galovski is co-founder of Women Veterans Network (WoVeN), the group that brought these women together; this was not the first time she had heard this kind of story. In her research and clinical work as director of the Women’s Health Sciences Division of the National Center for PTSD at the Department of Veterans Affairs, she repeatedly heard from veterans how difficult it was to transition from military service to civilian life, especially for servicewomen. “There are unique challenges,” Galovski says, “like even just finding each other after service, because there are simply fewer women than men who serve.”
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In 2017, Galovski and Amy Street, both clinical psychologists in Boston, started WoVeN as a series of weekly 90-minute meetings for groups of six to 12 women in dozens of cities around the country. Over two months, each cohort meets to discuss particular themes, like building self-esteem and improving personal relationships, in workshops led by two peer leaders. WoVeN members also have access to a national online social network of other members around the country.
More than a third of women leaving the military report “loss of income” as a challenge — a higher rate than reported by their male counterparts — and they take an average of three months longer to find civilian employment, according to research by Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families. Transitioning servicewomen are also more likely to be single parents than their male counterparts, and they face the additional complication of finding affordable child care as they return to civilian life or try to attend medical appointments at the V.A. Veterans have also told Galovski that some civilians assume that women can’t serve in the military, and as a result, many who have worn the uniform do not self-identify as veterans after leaving the service. Making up a larger part of the military than ever before, women are 18 percent of all officers and 16 percent of enlisted service members as of July, according to Pentagon data — but still many say they feel invisible in a society that is conditioned to think primarily of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guard members as men.
In addition to that lack of public recognition, Galovski says that many women in WoVeN report having suffered sexual trauma while in uniform; some are also dealing with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. For those women, WoVeN also offers them a place to process these issues. “What we’ve seen over and over again is that having supportive people in your life is good for recovery,” she says. More generally, the WoVeN program helps veterans meet people in their communities. It also informs them of various services and programs designed for women that they may not have known about before, including health care, job training and entrepreneurial support.
After securing initial funding two years ago from the Walmart Foundation through Boston University, WoVeN expanded from pilot programs in San Antonio, Pittsburgh and Charlotte, N.C, to 45 cities. By the end of October 2020, the group plans to be active in an additional 90 cities. For women who live in remote areas or who have mobility or transportation challenges, WoVeN will soon begin a pilot program for online group meetings through a teleconferencing service. More than 1,000 women have joined, and hundreds of them have completed the eight-week program so far, according to Galovski.
Women who have completed the workshops describe WoVeN as a lifeline after years of feeling isolated or misunderstood. Tracie Rosado, who left the Army in 2003 after serving in Iraq, says she found it difficult to reconnect with old friends once she re-entered civilian life. “The girlfriends I had before I joined the military, I couldn’t relate to them anymore,” Rosario says. “I always felt like ‘Oh, I said too much,’ or ‘Oh, I’m talking about what happened over there.’ I just didn’t fit in anymore.”
Rosado tried to join various veterans’ groups at V.A. centers but never found one that felt right. After searching online, she came across WoVeN and sent an email asking to join. A group was forming near her in San Antonio and needed a second peer leader before it could begin; Rosado was asked not only to join the group but to help lead it as well. The experience was transformative for her.
“It was the first time since I had separated that I felt like I was someplace I was supposed to be,” Rosado says of her leadership training with WoVeN. “Everywhere else I felt like an outsider.”
Nobody in the group cared about what rank she had held, how long she had served or what she did on active duty. The women were able to talk on a level on which they could all relate.
“We still have this bond, and it’s something you miss when you separate,” Rosario explains. “I feel like I am fearless again. It’s something you can’t buy, and you can’t go to school to learn it. I can only get this from my sister veterans.”