Original Article Found at: http://www.redbookmag.com/kids-family/blogs/mom-blog/michelle-obama-veterans
These Women Need You!
October 14, 2014 at 12:00 AM by Sandy M. Fernández
Despite years of training and service, women leaving the military today face unprecedented challenges finding work, even more so than male vets. REDBOOK brought five of them to the White House to talk to Michelle Obama about their struggles and their dreams. She’s determined to make things right for them and the thousands of women they represent—and you can too.
Michelle Obama leaned in, held their hands, and listened. “We need to shine a light on this issue,” she told them. “A lot of people think you guys come out [of the military] and the country is taking care of you, but the transition is tough.” Everyone around the table agreed: The best chance these women have of getting support and finding jobs is through raising awareness everywhere, not just on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Here’s a little background to catch you up: The recession was hard on all Americans, but it hit post-9/11 veterans—particularly women—brutally. As of July, nearly 11 percent of these former servicewomen were unemployed, compared to fewer than 9 percent of their male peers and about 7 percent of civilian women. These numbers have long-term consequences, such as a rapidly rising number of homeless female vets with children.
“People say, ‘What’s the big deal? They’re just like male vets,’?” says Deborah L. Frett, CEO of the Business and Professional Women’s (BPW) Foundation, which has created a mentoring program for female vets. “But they’re not. They’re women, they’re veterans, they’re often the family caretaker, they may be single moms—these are all groups with their own employment challenges, and they come together in female vets.”
As cofounder of the Joining Forces initiative, which creates opportunities for civilians to support military families, the First Lady has a special interest in seeing these women thrive. “As a nation, we made that mistake with previous veterans: We didn’t fully honor their service,” she says. “With this post-9/11 generation, we have a chance to right those wrongs.”
Meet the incredible women on these pages, then join us to help. As Mrs. Obama said, “We have to be with them every step of the way and forever.”
“I enlisted right out of high school and spent eight years doing small arms and artillery repair. I deployed three times to Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Iraq—twice as the only female in my shop—and rose to sergeant. I was a bad Mama Jama! But after I had my first child, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to keep leaving her during deployments, especially since my husband was Army and could be deployed too.
When I left the military, we were based in Hawaii, and I was able to find a job with a civilian company. But within a year, my husband got orders and we moved to Fort Lewis, in Washington. I looked for weapons jobs because that’s what I knew. But no one needed that. That’s when it hit me: You’re not in the military anymore. You’re on your own. I sent out so many résumés, when I finally got a call, I didn’t even remember what I’d applied for. It turned out to be a job as a rec assistant at the base gym, and they hired me. I liked the interaction with the military community, but I did sometimes wonder how I went from being a sergeant to handing out basketballs. Then, a year later, my husband got orders to move to Fort Irwin, in California, so I’m out of a job again.
All that time and dedication I put into small arms and artillery, it doesn’t help me now as a civilian. Where do I go from that? I want my 5-year-old daughter to see me with a career. She didn’t see me when I was at my strongest, and I want her to—but I don’t know if she ever will.”
Why Sonia struggles: “She’s been trained to be a leader,” Mrs. Obama said about Sonia. “She’s been trained to be the best of the best, not just for herself, but for her kids. And this country’s not giving her that opportunity, someone who wants it so desperately.” Sonia’s in the 20 percent of servicewomen who are “dual-military,” or married to someone who is also in the service. They are faced with challenges that few servicemen—only 4 percent of whom are dual-military—have. Studies show that spouses are often underemployed, partly because employers can be reluctant to hire someone they think will move away. And for professions requiring state certification—that includes nurses, lawyers, real estate agents, manicurists—each move can mean a lag while the spouse gets recertified through a costly round of paperwork and tests. In recent years, partly through the advocacy of Joining Forces, many states have taken steps to streamline licensing for military spouses in new states. But Mrs. Obama had a personal message for Sonia: “At 30, you still have time to develop a full career. And I bet you show your daughter a little bad Mama Jama in your own way. I know she looks up to you.”
“When I got out of the Marine Corps, I already had a BA and an MA, so I decided I’d move to the DC area because federal jobs seem to be a good fit for veterans. I also wanted to do a Ph.D. in international psychology, to build on all the experience I had living overseas during my service. I was really fortunate to have a good friend in the area who said I could stay with her, and I figured it would take me two or three months to find a job. Maybe it wouldn’t be perfect, but it would pay the rent.
In my last few weeks, I went through the Transition Assistance Program, or TAP. They try to prepare you to leave the military, but honestly, all the information seemed very general—and at the same time overwhelming. There was so much that I never had to think about while I was in the Marines: health insurance, life insurance. Still, when we did budgets, mine won praise for being the most practical one. It was only once I got out that I realized how laughable it was: Rent was about twice what I had allotted for it, and my budget didn’t even have a line for taxes! I lived with my friend for six months and sent out hundreds of résumés. I piled up credit card debt just to live. And when I finally got called about a job, it was five months in, for half the money I had wanted to make. My friend told me not to lower my standards, but I was like, ‘I need a job.’ For a few weeks I was adding to my 9 to 5 by working 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. taking inventory in a warehouse, trying to supplement, but that just isn’t sustainable. I’m still hoping for something better.”
Why Michelle struggles: “There’s no reason to scale back your goals,” the First Lady told Michelle. “Keep them lofty!” But military jobs can come with a dazzling number of benefits—free room and board, for one—that are near impossible to replicate with a civilian salary. “Veterans might not realize that you’re just not going to get those kinds of perks in the civilian world,” says Frett. TAP was supposed to help vets work through some of these adjustments, but until recently, it wasn’t obligatory. It’s only in the past year or so that the military has realized that the last few weeks of service are not the best time to prepare soon-to-be vets for civilian life. “It can’t be a three-week process at the end,” says Mrs. Obama. “More and more, [we’ve realized that we’ve] got to start requiring civilian readiness throughout the service.” These changes are starting—but not in time to help the hundreds of thousands of women who have already left the military.
“I never thought that a year after my retirement ceremony I’d still be looking for a job. My mother encouraged me to enlist at 17, saying, ‘You’ll find a husband and get out!’ We laugh about that now, because instead, I found a career. I rose to Chief Master Sergeant, a rank only 1 percent of enlisted personnel reach, and stayed 30 years, the longest allowed by law. Along the way, I got to change fields three times: I became a broadcaster for Armed Forces Radio and Television, did a stint as a career counselor, then moved into media and public relations.
When my service ended, I had some family things to take care of—my mom had moved in with me, my son was getting ready for college—and I thought I would take three to four months to find a corporate job, because my skill set was diverse. But that actually turned out to be a problem: My résumé, in addition to being phone-book-size, was all over the place. Even after I started tailoring it, I still hear that I’m overqualified or my experience is too varied. At the same time, some job postings seem almost written to exclude veterans. For example, one said you had to have ‘agency or corporate experience,’ even though I’ve done everything in that job description. Another company had a link saying, ‘We hire veterans!’—but when you clicked you saw they want you to drive trucks or weld. Why are we pigeonholed like that?
I try to stay positive, but my air conditioner just broke, and I know expenses will pile up. Savings don’t last forever. I have my pension, but that doesn’t cover everything. I want and need to be working again.”
Why Trish struggles: The push female service members feel to be perfect in a male-dominated military shows in Trish’s story, Mrs. Obama says: “She only applied for the jobs where she met every single qualification. That’s not just a challenge of women veterans, that’s a challenge for women, period. We think we have to be overtrained, overqualified.” Then there’s getting through to employers. “When I talk to HR people, to CEOs, there’s no one that doesn’t want to help vets,” says LinkedIn career expert Nicole Williams. But they don’t know how—and vets can have trouble branding themselves. “A lot of times, they’ll tell you what they have accomplished, but they can’t answer what value they bring to the company,” says Bob Dixon, who runs the vets-helping-vets Military-Civilian Career Coaching Connection (MC4) group on LinkedIn. “The vast majority of Americans don’t understand what happens in the military,” Mrs. Obama points out. It’s all of our responsibility to learn more so we can connect better.
“When I went into the Navy, people at home were taking bets on how long I would last. But I not only made it, I excelled. I served in the Navy for nine years after high school, from 2002 to 2011, and did two aircraft-carrier tours working supply—I could get a million-dollar part across the world from the U.S. to the Middle East in three days! I’m a single mom, and it was tough to balance that with being in the military, but I was serving my country and I was providing. And I just loved it.
In 2008, I was sent to Navy supply headquarters in Mechanicsburg, PA. It was a great job, but I was the only enlisted female there, and I don’t think they knew how to deal with me. One day when I was alone in the office, a superior walked in and asked, ‘Who’s in here?’ I responded, and he answered, ‘Great, the skirt’s in the office.’ Maybe he meant it as a joke, but it didn’t feel that way. Then when it came time to pick orders, the only choice I was given was to go to Bahrain unaccompanied—which meant going without my daughter, who was then 3. I’d left her with her dad before, but this would have been for three years, not a few months. It felt like my only option was to get out of the military. To this day, it haunts me. I thought that with all my experience, I wouldn’t have a problem finding a job. But between being a single mom and doing two deployments, I’d never gotten my college degree, and I realized pretty quickly that’s what everybody wants you to have: It’s always the first requirement you see on an online job posting. I realize education is important—I want my kids to get good educations—but it’s frustrating. It’s like everything I did for those eight and a half years means nothing.”
Why Kandy struggles: A lot of people go into the military to take advantage of the education benefits. But once they’re in—what with the distractions of deployments, life happening, and, oh, yeah, that career they just started—getting a degree can take longer than expected. (Even the super-driven Trish says her BA took her seven years and a leave to accomplish.) But then, you’re out of the military looking for a job with no diploma—and even if you take advantage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, you still have to be earning something. “I have been promoting education, period, because that is the way the world is going,” says Mrs. Obama. “On the other hand, veterans shouldn’t have to wait for a job. So one of our biggest challenges is, how do you take so many years of on-the-ground experience and compare that with a degree that may have nothing to do with the work?” Experts say the employers that tend to do that best are those with former military among their top executives or HR ranks. “It takes someone to take a chance on you,” says Dixon.
Dawn Smith, 37, Bradenton, FL AIR FORCE
“I was in the Air Force for eight years. I handled operations, moving thousands of passengers and tons of cargo all over the world. But when I left the military and looked for a job in a similar area, all I was offered were $9-an-hour warehouse jobs. I have four children! I wasn’t going to be able to survive. I put my head down and took a job as a teacher and then one at a federal agency—for a pay cut. There were many nights I didn’t eat because I had to feed my kids first and there wasn’t enough. And I kept pushing. I already had a bachelor’s and an MBA, but I got another master’s in accounting because I thought it might help at my agency. Still, I was seeing other people—men I trained—getting promoted around me. I went to see a headhunter, and he said, ‘Most of your experience is in a male-dominated field. Try putting D. Smith on your résumé instead of Dawn.’ He wanted me to not be a woman, basically. Then one night, I came across a site that said they helped female veterans. It turned out to be BPW Foundation’s mentoring program, and when I got a mentor, she asked things no one else had, like, did I want a job or a career? What else did I want? She looked at my résumé and made all these changes—and I started getting calls. She’d check in every few days, and it was amazing to feel like I had someone in my corner again. Soon I was hired by another federal agency at twice the pay. I even started my own small business, a tea company, which was a dream of mine. Everything feels more doable when someone has your back.” To that end, BPW Foundation set all our vets up with mentors from companies like Citi and Booz Allen Hamilton so they could get the same kind of help Dawn received. For updates on how all these women are doing today, visit redbookmag.com/hirevets.
After the First Lady’s morning with the female vets, REDBOOK Editor-in-Chief Meredith Rollins sat down with her to talk about them and the women they represent.
MICHELLE OBAMA: That was a great conversation!
REDBOOK: They’re just remarkable women. And, you know, they’ve been in uniform in some cases for decades.
MO: Hair pinned back, slicked back, caps, you know. It’s a different world for them. They’re used to being in uniform, and they need to understand the uniform of the civilian world. I think it gives them confidence to know, “Okay, I’m properly dressed,” just like, “I have the right résumé.” Knowing how to dress and feeling comfortable is huge. So [the REDBOOK] makeover—the hair, the makeup, the clothes—is a really important part. Thank you for making that happen!
RB: Veterans’ issues have been a huge focus of your time as First Lady. Do you think you’ll continue that work after you leave the White House?
MO: Absolutely. I feel a great affinity with these men and women and their families. They have kept me going personally. Their passion for this country, and their willingness to sacrifice, and their resilience reminds me of how much more I need to do. So I want to continue to lift up these stories so that the country doesn’t forget. And my hope is that whoever lives in this White House in the coming years will find a way to continue these efforts [and make them] a permanent part of the government’s role. Because these problems won’t be solved in 2017, you know?
RB: It’s also not a partisan issue. It’s an American issue, and it’s a thing that we all need to work on, no matter what party you support.
MO: Oh, absolutely. We believe that the efforts of Joining Forces should last far beyond this administration; that the spotlight we put on these families, these issues, and our service members should be something we do forever and across party lines. Most Americans—whether you’re in business or you live in a neighborhood or you belong to a congregation—you don’t know how you can help these men and women and their families. It really helps to provide a definition of the how for the millions of Americans who want to step up and do their part.
RB: How would you react if one of your girls said they wanted to join the military?
MO: I would support them in whatever they chose to do, and I would be honored to be a proud Blue Star mom. I would call on the support of all these wonderful folks I’ve met, I would get advice on how to do my part and to be there for them, and I would definitely be standing right beside them when they decided to transition out so that they would have a soft place to land and a warm spot to come home to.
A strong connection with the civilian world is one of the things that benefit military members and families the most. They need us. And we need them. You can:
Mentor a female vet. If you know a veteran look-ing for work, don’t wait for her to approach you—offer help. “Asking for help can be hard, because they’re used to taking care of things themselves,” says Michelle Obama. “But in the civilian world, it’s called networking, and it’s how people get noticed.” Become a mentor through the Business and Professional Women’s Foundation (joiningforcesmentoringplus.org). After getting matched, each pair decides how to proceed: They may get together once a month or connect via email—whatever will help the vet.
Find the veterans in your community. Ask your kids’ school, your congregation, and your professional organizations if they have programs for veterans or military families. These are more likely places to find female vets than, say, the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post. When you get involved, you’re giving these women a crucial new link to civilian life. Also, reach out to local bases or military publications if you’re putting together an event, like a concert or picnic. A chat over the potluck table may be all a woman vet needs to land a new job.
The right clothes matter too. Say you wore camo to work for 10 years: It might be a little tricky to figure out what to put on for a job interview. “Thirty years in with your feet in combat boots, you gotta learn to wear different shoes,” says vet Trish. REDBOOK sent these veterans home with clothes from Talbots, Of Mercer, Ann Taylor, Spanx, Sequin, R.J. Graziano, Charming Charlie, Timex, Sole Society, Nine West, and Easy Spirit. If you have new or nearly new workwear, donate it to Dress For Success (dressforsuccess.org), which provides vets and other women with stylish, appropriate clothes for interviews and jobs.