With Veterans Day approaching, I wanted to get a little personal and write about my transition from the US Army.

This picture was not taken while I was in the service, but a few weeks ago while on the American Women Veterans Leadership Summit. I was in no way prepared for how I felt putting the uniform back on. I ended up bawling in the arms of my new friends over the emotions I felt that day. I was not the only one who got emotional putting the uniform back on. Some had positive feelings and longed to sign back up to serve. Some had negative feelings as they remembered the trauma they experienced while on active duty. And some had mixed feelings.

When I received the photo, my heart was filled with an emotion I was surprised to feel….absolute pride. I couldn’t wait to show my kids! I served before digital cameras were a thing and so I have few photos in uniform, and most of those photos are pretty low quality. Now, I have this beautiful photo in the uniform that means so much to me and I can share with my children and someday grandchildren about how their mom and grandmom served in the US Army.

Below, is my essay response to my application for After Her Service. I included it because I think it really expresses some of what this photo means to me.

The essay:

“My transition from military to civilian life was messy, confusing, and lonely. After five and a half years of service, I received a medical discharge when an injury sustained in Advanced Individualized Training degraded to the point where I could no longer carry out my duties. I went from being a full-time soldier to a full-time mother of two difficult young children, whom I did not know had autism at the time, with a husband deployed to the DMZ in Korea. I moved near my home while my husband was gone and was isolated from anyone who had served in the military. I felt so alone and lost. I spent the next ten years in survival mode learning about autism and raising my children, usually alone as my husband was either deployed or away for training. It was a horrible, messy transition and I look back on those times as some of the most character-defining days of my life.

I feel like my actual transition occurred about a decade after I separated from the service. In 2015, I started pursuing my master’s degree. I almost dropped out of school at the end of week six. I felt so much older than most of the students there, I had a very different world view, and the military skills which had served me well during service, alienated me from my peers. Luckily, I discovered Student Veterans of America and my transition indeed began. For the first time since separating from the service, I started identifying as a veteran. I had been ashamed to identify as a veteran because I felt like I was not a real veteran since I had not deployed and I had medically discharged. There were also no other women veterans in my community, or at least none that self-disclosed they were veterans. Once I finally identified as a veteran, I felt like I was a whole person again. I had denied a part of myself that had been such an integral part of my self-development. Once I was my whole self again, my life became so much more fulfilling.

I have spent the last 15 months embracing my veteran status and taking advantage of opportunities available to me. I was selected for the High Ground Veterans Advocacy January 2017 class, became a Veterans in Global Leadership Fellow, chosen as Ft. Meade Base Spouse of the Year, and was selected as one of the first chapter leaders of an American Woman Veteran (AWV) chapter. As I attended the AWV leadership summit, we took photos in uniform. Nothing could prepare me for how emotional I would become, being back in uniform, and how much I missed my time in the service. I feel as if I am still transitioning, that there is no end to the transition as there is always more to learn. I have found my tribe among other veterans and civilians who support the veteran community. As I prepare to graduate and transition onto my path to a career, I have both fear and excitement as I look forward to what the future will bring.”

Transitioning is hard. It’s messy. It’s complicated. I want to raise awareness to some of the challanges we face through this post. I challenge you to share your struggles and victories of transitioning. The more we talk about it, the less we stigmatize those who are struggling with the transition from military service. As I shared in the essay for After her Service, my transition took over ten years and is still a work in progress. Thank you for reading. And Margo, thank you for the beautiful photograph!