The Intersectionality of Being a Female Veteran, Former Military Spouse, and Mental Health

By July 19, 2018November 5th, 2019Client Stories, Military Stories, Provider Stories

I am a female veteran, former military spouse, licensed professional counselor, nationally certified counselor, and a clinical provider (volunteer) for Give an Hour. Throughout my life, I have had experiences, and traumatic obstacles, that have shaped me into the person I am today.

After high school, I attended Auburn University. The semester before graduating the Psychology undergraduate program, I lost my mother to breast cancer.

I continued on, pursuing a Master’s of Education in Community Agency Counseling. As I worked towards completing my internship during the last semester of the master’s program, I found myself ‘alone’ – emotionally, physically, and mentally. I longed for the consistent phone communication and support I had with my mom during graduate school. I knew my father was also having a difficult time with the grief, so I did not reach out to him. Struggling with my emotional wellness, I turned to substances to help me cope with my grief. I thought “Hey, it was only one semester and I would be done,” however, the substances took over my life. Eventually I was removed from the master’s program; losing my job/internship at an Adult Day Center for severe and chronic mental illnesses.

Conquering the fear of burdening and disappointing my father, I finally admitted to him that I was struggling and moved home. Embarrassed, alone, and disappointed in myself, I mustered the strength to begin to make a change. I found employment in the mental health field, although I didn’t envision that working with individuals with substance abuse history would be my lifetime profession. The meager salary barely paid bills and student loans!

Someone suggested that I join the military and soon after I found myself standing in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air force offices seeking guidance, with a goal of becoming an Officer. I wanted to make a quick transition, but Air Force boot camp was at least a year’s wait and Officer Candidacy Training (Navy) was an 8-month wait. My impression of joining the Navy was that I could travel, gain experiences, and get away from my problems, so when they suggested an enlisted boot camp (with a potential path to officer), I signed up that day to ship

out. I enlisted as an Aviation Structural Mechanic (AM), completely out of my realm of experience. Upon arrival I was nervous, but hopeful. I checked in to the command and learned that they already knew more about me than I knew about them. I was a woman trying to do a “man’s” job, who had the degrees that could make me an officer, yet I was enlisted. Leadership (at the time) seemed interested in helping me achieve Officer rank but as is common in the military, the leadership changed and I was back to square one.

After some time in service I met Steve, a fellow service member, and befriended him as we endured the stress of preparing for our first deployment. On that deployment (7 months), Steve and I were assigned the same location and a group of us took a four-day trip to Rome. Deployments brought everyone close together and I found myself enjoying the adventure. By the time deployment was ending, I had two years left in the military and had decided Steve was the love of my life. With another deployment coming soon Steve and I chose to postpone our relationship so we could deploy together and earn money for the future.

Through my military service, I learned that even when service members were experiencing struggles at home or work, they refused to seek mental health services for fear of being judges and retributions of potential discharge. I knew that I wanted to help my newfound family and decided to go back to school for mental health. I was Honorably Discharged in 2013. and married to Steve within days of my discharge. I went from “service member” to “military spouse” and “veteran” quickly. Steve stayed in the same command, and with another deployment looming in a year or so- we began trying to have a child. I did not want to have a child while he was deployed, like some spouses’ experience. I also applied for a master’s program in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Steve financially supported our family; allowing me to focus on school, grades, and graduation.

Our plan was working and we had our beautiful daughter, Lilly who was almost six months old before Steve left for his deployment. Being so young, I do not think Lilly realized Steve was gone, but I definitely did. I was alone, a full-time student, and a new parent with no family nearby. The most challenging parts of being a military spouse was not having my partner with me as I experienced our child’s milestones, and civilians not understanding how to be supportive. As a military spouse I did not feel like a civilian, as I had to be ready to transfer duty stations, jobs – just like the active duty.

When Steve was Honorably Discharged in 2015, I knew the transitioning process may be difficult but I felt prepared to help him through it. I took that summer off of school to spend quality time our little family and help him secure civilian employment. Steve went through two auto mechanic jobs before he finally secured a job on base.

In December 2015, as I was beginning the final internship requirement to graduate, everything changed expectantly and suddenly. On December 18th, Lilly’s birthday, Steve got sick and was hospitalized. A few weeks later, I had to make the decision to move Steve into hospice care. I lost Steve on January 6th 2016 at 2:11 am. I found myself in complete shock when he passed away and I knew that, this time, I had to reach out for help immediately.

As a relatively young widow, I had no idea what needed to be done to take care of affairs after a death. My stepmother stayed with me before a military-connected friend from Hawaii took a week of leave to help me. Other military friends were checking on me frequently; bringing me food or simply sitting with me. I had never experienced such support and love in my life. If it were not for my amazing military family, my supervisors, and Lilly’s daycare teacher, I am not sure if I would have been able to navigate the loss and still graduate school.

Throughout my master’s program, I researched articles on military-connected or related issues. From my experiences, my husband’s experiences, and my passion for helping others, I felt that I was called to the mental health profession; however, it was from the experience of losing my husband that I discovered that I might be able to do more with a doctorate of philosophy in Counselor Education and Supervision.

One day I came across Give an Hour™ and inquired about providing services. Once I obtained my Licensed Professional Counselor license, I began providing pro bono mental health services to military-connected individuals, which has been very fulfilling. Being a part of Give an Hour seems like a small way that I can give back to those who acted as family to me when I was in need, both as active duty, military spouse, and veteran.

It Is my hope that through reaching out for help – you know that you too can overcome obstacles and achieve your dreams and aspirations, even when you do not feel it is possible. I am a testament to this and I hope you are or become one too.