Read the latest article of BPW Foundation’s every-other-week Joining Forces feature that brings us the voices of women veterans telling their stories. If you are a women veteran who would like to share your story, please contact us through our Joining Forces for Women Veterans Facebook page, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Embracing Your True Self
by Danielle Corazza
I’ve never been a girly-girl. Growing up in a dual-military family left me with a strong work ethic, a drive to constantly achieve, and very little time for fashion and giggles. Not that I didn’t have a fun childhood filled with great times, family, and friends, just that I never felt that I fit the traditional “feminine” model as I had very little time or concern for my appearance or baby dolls – instead being obsessed with earning ribbons for good grades and money. The thought of spending hours in a chair for a hair appointment, or even worse, loitering in a spa all day, leaves me filled with unease, instead of delight. And, compared to my two sisters, I am downright tomboyish. One sister, a fashion plate who always looks like she popped off the pages of a magazine, tried (unsuccessfully!) for years to guide me towards the softer side of being a woman.
I’m not sure if my early exposure to the military life, that of pressing military uniforms and polishing boots, surrounded by no-nonsense men and women going about the business of serving our country, formed my perspective, or if I was born this way, and the environment just exacerbated it. Either way, it never bothered me, and being told I was “one of the guys” by guy friends and co-workers always made me feel I’d passed a special test – one that proved that I wasn’t afraid of blood, sweat, and guns… Yes, guns. From the moment I picked one up in basic training, it felt right. I was good at taking a deep breath, slowly releasing it, and stroking the trigger. Hit center mass every time. One more point of approval on the male scale, bathed in acceptance, part of the band, not one of the silly women to be leered at, but not included.
I fit in just fine in the military, too – fond of my uniform, aware of how to fulfill all of the idiosyncratic expectations of supervisors, and able to keep within the lines with ease. I also continued to pride myself on fitting in with the men, scoffing at the weak females who cried for their mommies or exhibited heartbreak when faced with a broken nail or stubbed toe.
Years later, as I reflect back, I realize that I was constantly smothering my initial reactions to every situation since I knew there would be a man who’d have something to say if I had a “soft” response. At the time, I don’t think I was consciously meeting their expectations, but I was definitely tempering my personal instincts to please the mostly-male audience. (This became such an ingrained habit that I still second-guess which reaction is the real reaction and which is the conditioned one.)
Since growing up, having children and dealing with personal health issues, I’ve had to admit that I am a girl. And that my instinct for nurturing doesn’t make me weak. And that while I love men, there is true value to having (and using) womanly intuition.
I’ve spent the last 18 months working for an advocacy organization. Not just any advocacy organization, an organization that is by women, for women. Business and Professional Women’s Foundation’s roots lie in the early days of suffragettes, and they didn’t stop representing working women once the vote was achieved. Instead, they continued to light the way, providing education and research for underserved working women populations, usually before such support was popular. For example, BPW realized years ago that women veterans needed a voice, and immediately began studying their transition issues in search of answers. I’ve been proud to be a part of the team working on solutions, and have learned much about the true effort that still needs to be put in to continue furthering women’s equality. (I was especially surprised to find that only in the military are women paid equivalently to men!) This working experience has given me the education on women’s issues that I lacked growing up in the military environment.
During my ongoing search for how to justify my logical, just-fit-in side with the realization that I have to express my real self to achieve true contentment, I was offered a slot in a leadership course by BPW’s CEO, Debbie Frett. In her unwavering dedication to promote only the best and most effective programs for women veterans, Debbie was very clear in her intent to validate the program prior to promoting it or collaborating with the developers. I was very proud to accept and to represent BPW during the program. Named “Leading with Resiliency and Grace,” this was the pilot program aimed at women veterans. Not only were the participants women veterans, the course lead and logistical team were mainly women vets, too. So, a program for vets, by vets, put on by vets. Woman vets.
Even on active duty, it was rare for me to be in the presence of more than five females at a time. Imagine my surprise upon walking into the conference room for the start of the three-day program and being confronted by the sight of twenty women vets.
Twenty women of all shapes and sizes, spanning all ages and ranks, from opposite corners of the United States. Only two things bound us together: our gender and our military service.
Within the first three hours of gathering, we were crying and sharing and bonding like we’d been the best of friends for years. I realized quickly that the angst and agitation I’d been experiencing for years was due to the suppression of me, of my views and emotions concerning the world around me. The program showed me what I didn’t know and hadn’t grasped on my own, and that was the degree to which I had been “militarized”- used to operating in a male world, functioning with a male perspective, repressing my own feminine response.
Another valuable point of the learning process was recognizing the similarities among us: each of us had felt lonely, outcast, downtrodden, frustrated, and misunderstood at one point or another in our transitions through life, be it at the age of 24 or 44. We all reveled in the joy of realizing our reactions and situations, while individual, were not unique. No one among us was crazy! What a comfort to hear that others have felt your pain and that you are NOT alone.
As I walked into the room on the morning of day two, one of my fellow participants remarked on the buoyancy of my steps, “You look like you’ve lost twenty pounds!” I told her that not only did I feel like I’d shed the weight holding me down, but that I’d slept like a baby after doing so!
Fast forward to the third and final day. After working through our past, defining our future, and learning how to relate both to our present, we were done. Each of us armed with a Legacy statement, each of us leaving with an arsenal of tools to use daily towards continued growth, each of us bonded together even more deeply than we were upon arrival. That was the second, unanticipated, but just as valuable outcome – a new peer network with no boundaries. No shame, no secrets, no withholding, just respect, affection, and understanding for each other, and commitments to continue providing support, no matter what.
I’d been searching for a replacement military family since I left the service years ago. But, even though I’ve gathered lots of friends along the way, never had I been able to feel wholly accepted and understood by a group as quickly and sincerely as I was with this group of women.
From the bottom of my heart, I thanked the leaders and participants of the Sunergos’ “Leading with Resiliency and Grace,” a truly mind- and life-altering experience. And, I thank Business and Professional Woman’s Foundation for believing I was worthy of representing them.
(If you are interested in having this experience for yourself, please email email@example.com and if you are interested in getting involved with Business and Professional Women’s Foundation’s Joining Forces for Women Veterans Mentorship Program, please visit our website at http://www.bpwfoundation.org)