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Let Me Help You Help Me

(More Civilian Career Advice for West Point Women)

I recently experienced the most professionally rewarding day of my life. The Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology (MSPP) invited me to speak at their conference, “Caring for our Veterans and Their Families: Emerging Perspectives & Innovative Practices.”

I spoke on a panel called “Working with Women Veterans.” My objective was to teach mental health professionals about how they can better treat the unique needs of female veterans. I started by telling them that whenever someone discovers I am a veteran, the first reaction I undoubtedly get is a shocked, “Wow! You don’t look like a veteran!” I think it’s meant as a compliment, but it also demonstrates that society often stereotypes its image of a female veteran, and if we don’t fall within that category, then perhaps we are missing out on the community support that we probably need and desire.

To show them that any woman who passes them in the street could be a veteran, and that there is no distinguishing characteristic advertising our service, I shared a slide show of favorite photos from birth to present (and I did NOT use Power Point). Then I described some of the key themes that dominated the various phases of my life, allowing them to have a comprehensive understanding and vision of my life experiences – which directly impacts not only my mental health, but overall wellbeing.

This allowed the classroom of therapists to begin drawing their own conclusions on how to better treat female veterans. But as a well-trained therapy patient, I wanted to prove that my time and money have been well spent, and that my therapist has enabled me to articulate what I need most. So I made some suggestions, based on the biggest challenges I have faced and continue to work through as a female veteran and transitioned civilian.

First and foremost, I explained that while the VA has many valuable programs and incredible people dedicated to serving a population in need, nothing exists to help my demographic. As educated West Pointers and well-seasoned leaders, it’s highly unlikely that we will ever face homelessness or lack viable job skills for the civilian sector. But we still need help and guidance making that big leap from military to civilian life. And I don’t know about you, but I remember our instructors telling us that civilian companies would be bending over backwards and throwing six-figure salaries our way, begging us to infiltrate their ranks. Well, that is the biggest pile of you-know-what I have ever heard. I’ve had to bust my hump for years and prove myself all over again to reach that status in the corporate world. Too bad West Point set me up for false expectations that led to frustration, hopelessness and serious depression. Thank goodness for therapy, though – oh, but not VA therapy – because the quality of care I received there was subpar, with treatments feeling formulaic and providers leaving their jobs too frequently.

Then I admitted my constant struggle with working for a secure and steady paycheck, even if my true passions are in something completely unrelated – and I think West Pointers are at a complete disadvantage in this realm. We never had that open-ended collegiate experience of trying out new things, being able to change our majors 6 times, the complete freedom of self-discovery and a faculty of supportive advisors representing every career path imaginable. The soonest we can possibly begin to explore our passions outside of military service are after our 5 year obligation, often when we have established financial responsibilities that require us to immediately commit to our first decent job offer. But when I’m spending my work days not truly believing in what I do or feeling like I’m significantly contributing to society, then I become miserable.

I also touched on some more personal struggles with feeling isolated in my community and pessimistic about finding love post-divorce – but I’ll save those details for future blogs.

Ultimately, therapy is supposed to teach us how to help ourselves. Well, what better way to help myself than to teach the very people who are devoted to helping women like me. Talk about a truly rewarding and cathartic experience. Thank you MSPP!

About the author

Laura Westley, aka, the War Virgin, hails from New Port Richey, Florida and graduated from West Point in 2001 with a degree in Chemistry and a minor in Nuclear Engineering. She commissioned as an officer in the US Army Adjutant’s General Corps and was assigned to the Aviation Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division in Savannah, Georgia. On March 21, 2003, Laura and her unit were a part of the initial Iraq invasion.