When she first walked on campus about three years ago, Elena Kim didn’t sport any of the telltale signs of a U.S. Army veteran, like a buzz cut, combat boots or military-themed apparel.
For months, she kept her head down and hit the books without giving any hint that she had just ended a five-year stint in the Army, which included a deployment to Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit, Iraq.
Although about a quarter of GW student veterans are women, Kim said she remembers thinking, “Where are all the girls?”
Out of uniform and on Foggy Bottom, female veterans are trying to strengthen their community during a time when members of GW Veterans say they are struggling to grow their membership overall.
When Kim decided to get involved in GW’s student veteran group, she remembers meeting only male veterans before someone eventually introduced her to “the other female vet.”
That first forced, awkward encounter ultimately became her most important social connection at GW, helping her find a best friend and roommate that Kim said she “can’t get through the day without.”
Kim and her roommate, Marine veteran Chalina Seligson, have since become close with more female veterans at GW, getting together for a “girls’ night out” or other activity each month. Now, anytime she meets another female veteran, Kim tries to make the kind of connection she sought when arriving at GW.
“One of the things I recognized from my experience was that my transition might have been a whole lot easier if I was able to connect with more women veterans,” said Kim, who is now working toward her masters in political management after earning her undergraduate degree from GW. “Here we are in this new environment, and I look at this person sitting across the table from me, and I know that she has my back. It’s the same shit that you hear guys say. It holds true with women veterans.”
And without a sizeable base of active veterans, many of those who don’t bear the obvious markers of the stereotypical veteran can be left out of the loop.
Michael Ruybal, associate director of the Office of Military and Veterans Services, said despite tremendous progress for females in the military, he said society still needs to move past its perceptions of an armed forces divided along gender lines. Women now make up about 10 percent of veterans overall.
“It’s hard [for women] to say you were military, you are a veteran, because you don’t portray this very cookie cutter image of what you would think that would be,” Ruybal said. “I think that’s where that stigma comes – the visual representation of what we think a veteran looks like when the reality is they’re everybody.”
After embarking on a 15-month tour during the troop surge in Iraq at age 19, Kim said she didn’t think much about her gender then. Today, she labels herself a veteran as well as a female veteran, owning both identities.
She added that women don’t typically wear their service on their sleeve, but carry their military identity differently, which “doesn’t mean that we’re not proud.”
Sophomore and Air Force veteran Veronica Hoyer said she looked to be part of a veterans community, but did not specifically seek out other women.
“One of the things that I miss about the Air Force is the brotherhood that I was a part of,” Hoyer said. “You can be accepted into that regardless of your sex – into the closeness that is a brotherhood.”
Lt. Cmdr. Alex Greene, an assistant professor of naval science who trains students in GW’s Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps, said that it’s easier for women to leave their military service as soon as they change into civilian clothes.
“Off duty, I can literally let my hair down,” Greene said, adding that some who know her from the military don’t recognize her. “Sometimes people within my own unit will do a double take.”
She joined GW’s NROTC in 1997, before women could serve on submarines. There have been big changes since then, and this year the Department of Defense lifted its ban on women in combat.
Sabrina Rigney, a graduate student and former Air Force medic, said she hasn’t seen a strong showing from female veterans at events even though they make up about a quarter of GW’s veterans population.
“We are pretty testosterone heavy. It would be a better balance to have some more female vets there,” Rigney said. “I haven’t honestly met very many women vets.”