During service and in civilian life, women veterans can be overlooked and underserved.
By Courtney Runn
As Vivianne Pearson’s car accelerated and concrete gave way to rusty steel railings and sky, she fantasized about stepping on the pedal to hasten her death. In seconds, memories of sexual assault and PTSD would disappear. She told herself it would be quick, but one thought stopped her foot and guided her hands as she continued up the MoPac Expressway ramp: her 3-year-old daughter.
Pearson joined the military at 17 in 2005, but after a superior sexually assaulted her, her military career quickly deteriorated. Her assaulter made her life miserable, constantly looking for ways to get her in trouble and silence her. She eventually left on a medical discharge after three and a half years of service, for the sake of her mental health. She didn’t tell anyone what happened to her.
After taking a sabbatical to heal and performing volunteer medical work in Haiti, she opened a salon and launched a cosmetic line in 2010. But the trauma lingered. She went to a variety of Department of Veterans Affairs health centers near Austin to seek help for her increasingly debilitating mental health but felt like just a number. She kept looking, though, advocating for herself for the sake of her daughter. At her lowest point, when she considered suicide, she found Dr. Tasha Wellington at the VA’s center in Cedar Park, Texas.
“That woman, I can honestly say— and she knows this very well—[is] a huge reason why I’m here today,” Pearson says. “She would not let me quit on myself and that’s the best thing she could have done for me.”
During six months of intensive counseling, Pearson faced her assault for the first time and began to see her story differently. With the help of Wellington, she faced the MoPac ramp she’d been avoiding.
“She’s like, ‘It’s not your story anymore,’ ” Pearson says. “ ‘And you can drive that ramp with confidence, knowing that it did not beat you.’ ”
She now sees the road that could have ended her life as a metaphor for her new life, full of opportunity and hope. She still runs her cosmetics line, ViviCouture, which includes a bright-purple lipstick called Courage. A percentage of the lipstick’s sales goes to supporting mental-health organizations. Pearson also powerlifts competitively and runs a training and meal-prep company for women, both tools she’s used to combat stress.
“Definitely seek help, especially if you’re a veteran with PTSD. It’s cliché, but it’s imperative,” she says.
WOMEN IN THE MILITARY
Pearson’s military experience is not uncommon, but not everyone has a happy ending or seeks help. According to the Pentagon’s 2018 report on sexual assault in the military, 24.2 percent of active-duty female veterans are sexually harassed and only about one in three report it. In 2016, the VA released data tracking veteran suicide rates, and women veterans are almost twice as likely to die by suicide as their civilian counterparts.
Gretchen Johnson Rees, a counselor and director of clinical services at the Austin branch of the Samaritan Center, works with veterans and sees a wide array of military-related trauma. From helping others with unhealthy coping mechanisms and addictions (she says addiction to caffeine is a common struggle after relying on energy drinks during service) to processing military sexual trauma, Rees works with individuals, couples and families transitioning to civilian life.
“It’s such a small subset of the population that have served in the wars,” she says. “That is a very unique experience that you really become like brothers and sisters with those that you served with, and to come back with people who don’t share that experience, it can be isolating.”
The Samaritan Center promotes a holistic approach to healing and the Austin branch offers counseling, tai chi, Pilates and acupuncture to both veterans and nonveterans in the community. The center provides six free counseling sessions to veterans and their families and served 1,400 veterans and their families last year.
I AM NOT INVISIBLE
Anna Baker served in the Air Force as a linguist for four years but would downplay her time in the military if anyone asked. It wasn’t until a friend asked her, “Why are you demeaning your service?” that her perspective shifted. After more than 16 years working for Dell, Baker joined the Texas Veterans Commission as the Women Veterans Program manager. Today, she’s the manager of the Veterans Entrepreneur Program.
Her time at the TVC opened her eyes to the realities of women service members. Beyond the common issues that plague men and women veterans alike, Baker encountered women like herself who minimized their service and were misidentified as the wives, daughters or sisters of veterans instead of veterans themselves.
Women have served in every major U.S. war since the American Revolution but were not officially integrated into the military until 1948, when President Harry S. Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act. Each decade since has seen advancements in women’s ability to serve and empowered women to seek out resources. In her role, Baker sees how the generational gap affects each era of women veterans. World War II and Cold War veterans are less likely to proudly talk about their service and seek help, and Baker has met Vietnam veterans who are just now receiving counseling and processing their experiences. Post 9/11 female veterans are more open about their service, benefiting from increasingly destigmatized conversation surrounding mental health and PTSD, but are still less vocal than their male counterparts. Regardless of the era, Baker often meets women who don’t fully identify as veterans.
In March, Baker launched the Texas branch of a national campaign highlighting all generations of women veterans. Called I Am Not Invisible, the campaign featured 30 black-and-white portraits of Texan women veterans with accompanying bios detailing their service.
“There is a whole population out there of women veterans that have fallen through the cracks, that don’t take advantage of their benefits, that don’t know they have benefits,” Baker says. “The whole purpose of the women veterans program and Women Veterans Day and the I Am Not Invisible campaign is to create awareness to the public, to veterans, male and female, old and young.”
In this spirit, Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, helped pass legislation in 2018 to designate June 12 as Women Veterans Day. This legislative session, she supported a bill aimed at reducing veteran suicide rates.
“Losing even one veteran is one too many,” Neave says.
Texas has the biggest population of veterans in the country and more than 180,000 women veterans, but for the many women—and men— championing women veterans, there is much work to be done in the state of Texas to ensure every woman veteran has the resources and help she needs to successfully transition to civilian life.
“Look, it doesn’t matter where you served. It doesn’t matter when you served,” Baker says. “It doesn’t matter if you sat in an office and did military payroll or if you were on the front lines. You provided a service and it matters.”
If you are in immediate crisis, call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1.800.273.8255 and press 1, or text 838255 to the same number. You can also chat online at veteranscrisisline.net/chat. If you’ve experienced military sexual trauma, anonymous help is available by calling 877.995.5247 or visiting safehelpline.org.
HOW TO START THE CONVO
Volunteer. If you’re a licensed counselor, you can volunteer for the Samaritan Center’s Friday walk-in clinic for veterans.
Hire veterans. Anna Baker works with employers and veterans to destigmatize fears surrounding veterans in the workplace. She reminds employers that anyone in the population can struggle with trauma or PTSD, plus veterans bring a lot of valuable skills and qualities to a workplace, from loyalty to hard work and adaptability.
Use your resources. From taking advantage of VA resources to using services like Dress for Success that can help with prep for job interviews, Baker encourages all veterans to be aware of what’s available and to tell other veterans.
Listen. Listen to the veterans in your life. While many veterans do return from service with PTSD, counselor Gretchen Johnson Rees warns against making that assumption.