Why Americans can make women vets ‘feel invisible’

November 11, 2021
Veteran Emily Hernandez served seven years of active duty, including a nine-month tour in Afghanistan, as a sergeant.
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Emily Hernandez joined the Army at 19.

Once a cheerleader — and a self-described “girly girl” — she joined the military police and served seven years of active duty, including a nine-month tour in Afghanistan, as a sergeant.

Since the Louisville woman’s first trip to a recruiter’s office, a lot has changed. 

“When I joined the military, the most combatant role that a female could join as was military police,” Hernandez, 31, said.

“The changes that are being made for females in the military — they’re monumental right now,” she added.

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But Hernandez, who was drawn to join the military after watching news reports of the 9/11 attacks in sixth grade and now does outreach with Kentucky-based Veteran’s Club, said there are still a lot of assumptions about what a veteran looks like.

She and others said it’s important to challenge those stereotypes. 

Sometimes as a woman, she said, “you kind of put the veteran side to the side because you don’t fit the normal criteria.”

Hernandez found community with the Veteran’s Club and enjoys spending several hours each week helping with outreach by passing out gift certificates for food to unhoused veterans or offering hugs and prayers.

But, “As a female veteran, I’d say that a lot of people don’t recognize you as a veteran overall,” she said.

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Hernandez has felt this lack of recognition when using her military ID while out with her husband, who is also a veteran.

“The gentlemen that was taking my ticket, he looked down at it and saw that we had a military discount,” Hernandez said. “He took the ticket from me and moved to the side to look at my husband and was like, ‘Oh … you’ve served, you’re a veteran, thank you for your service.'”

Lindsay Gargotto, the Military and Veteran Services director at Bellarmine University in Louisville and an Air Force veteran, said general assumptions about what a veteran looks like can make women “feel invisible.”

Gargotto, 41, said veteran imagery that often only depicts men “gets into your psyche.”

“If you’re looking at things and being depicted a certain way and you’re like, ‘that’s not me,’ then that gets internalized over time,” she said.

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Gargotto said there need to be more thoughtful spaces for women veterans — spaces that are authentic and not tokenizing.

“There is a much more diverse narrative than what exists,” she said. “We just need to be more open as a community to understanding that.” 

The Pew Research Center reported in April that while 89% of the country’s veteran population are men and 11% are women, that is expected to change in the coming years. Women will likely make up 18% of the veteran population by 2046, according to Pew.

The Kentucky Department of Veteran Affairs website in 2019 said there were 24,000 women veterans in the commonwealth.

Hernandez said she wants to see more women veterans participating in events and being visible. 

“It doesn’t have to be like a typical military-related thing,” she said. “We don’t have to sit around and talk about our time in the service. We can just talk about, you know, what are our crazy kids up to these days or … anything and everything under the sun.”

RaeAnne Pae, who is from the Louisville area but now directs the Texas chapter of Kentucky-based USA Cares, said having more women veteran-specific outreach and reexamining preconceived notions of what a veteran looks like is crucial.

Having lived in New York, California and Texas as well, she said women veterans feel a lack of recognition across the country, highlighting the need for more visibility for women veterans nationwide.

The former Army captain and military intelligence officer said it took time for her to identify with the word “veteran” when she transitioned to civilian life in 2012. People assumed her veteran’s license plate was her husband’s. In veteran-specific settings, people asked if she was someone’s daughter.

“The biases that … exist in our society around women’s capabilities — it is exhausting to try to break that,” Pae, 39, said. “I was in combat for two years total, doing the same thing that men around me were doing, and held to the same standards, and oftentimes exceeding those standards, but it felt like I needed to work that much harder to be perceived half as equal or half as good.”

Follow Sarah Ladd on Twitter at @ladd_sarah. 

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Life is like a running cycle right! I am a news editor at TIMES. Collecting News is my passion. Because my visitors have the right to know the truth and perfectly.

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