When Teresa Lambert graduated high school in 1988, she found herself on a more unique path than most of her fellow female classmates.
Lambert joined the U.S. Air Force at 17 and began a career in air transportation. In the overwhelmingly male-dominated field, she relished the challenge.
“It’s considered a man’s career field, so it was a perfect fit for me because I grew up as a tomboy and there was nothing a man could do that I couldn’t do,” Lambert said.
However, her life in the military was not idyllic. She faced several obstacles during her tenure in the Air Force.
But each obstacle she overcame led her to helping others through their own journeys as active service members and veterans.
Now, the University of North Georgia student serves as the Northeast Georgia ambassador for Women Veteran Social Justice, an organization that advocates for female veterans and their needs.
A big part of Lambert’s job is reaching out to female veterans via social media, as many of them are disabled and can’t leave their homes. WVSJ also connects female veterans with job skills training and counsels them on how to get the Veterans Administration benefits to which they are entitled.
But Lambert’s journey with the military started years earlier.
During the Michigan native’s military career, she oversaw air transportation of cargo. And she served in Operation Desert Storm in Iraq and Kuwait in 1991.
But a decade of service in a physically demanding job took its toll. Her marriage to a civilian became embroiled in domestic abuse.
It was then Lambert discovered the military’s resources fell short of helping her cope.
“The Air Force’s way of handling (my husband’s abuse) was just to always send him back to the States, just basically to get rid of the problem,” said Lambert, who was stationed overseas at the time. “They got rid of him, but I didn’t get any of the support or the recognition from my command that I was in a domestically abusive marriage.”
Their relationship ultimately ended. However, Lambert’s hardships were not over. When she exited the military in 1998, Lambert suffered from more than abuse.
“By the time I left, my anxiety level was so high that I would not let anybody touch me,” said Lambert, who is now in her mid-40s. “I didn’t get any kind of help, and I was such a mess. I continued making bad choices.”
In 2007, Lambert was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. But the societal slant of recognizing men as the combat veterans and women as their subordinates prevented Lambert from embracing her military status and getting the help available to all active duty veterans.
“A man walks around and he’s wearing a veteran’s hat and that’s OK,” she said. “But if a women does it, she’s just wanting attention.”
Not a solitary story
Female military veterans face myriad obstacles, chief among them society’s reluctance to recognize them as vets. And Air Force veteran Stephanie Watkins knows most of the obstacles.
The 53-year-old Gainesville native entered the Air Force after graduating from Gainesville High School in 1980. She served during peacetime, working as a postal worker and administrator while stationed in the United States and Germany.
In 2005, Watkins became post commander of the local post of the VFW as the first woman to hold the office.
“A veteran is anyone who served in the military,” she said. “The perception is you have to have been in a war, and that’s not the case.”
Watkins explained the roles women are expected to play can further complicate their ability to seek help and support following their military service.
“(Women) are the leaders of the household, and we are expected to be mommy all the time, wife, auntie and the like, and we don’t take a lot of time for ourselves,” Watkins said. “There’s a culture where we are expected as mothers, sisters and as a veteran to do everything, but we need to ask for help.”
A 2009 study by Housing and Urban Development and the Veterans Administration supports her claim. While the entire U.S. veteran population grapples with homelessness, female veterans are more likely to be homeless than their male counterparts. They are also four times more likely to be homeless than civilian women.
Roughly 160,000 veterans experienced homelessness in 2009. While only about 8 percent of the documented homeless vets were female, the VA and HUD study concluded women vets between the ages of 18 and 30 are at a particularly high risk for homelessness, especially if they identify as Hispanic, African-American or Native American.
Children also may be an added barrier for female veterans to receive help.
“Women generally come with children, so (homeless) shelters, No. 1, are not set up for women, and they’re not set up to handle families,” Lambert said.
Many female veterans are also victims of Military Sexual Trauma, such as BriGitte McCoy, who founded the Atlanta-based Women Veterans Social Justice.
The past trauma can prevent a woman from entering any space where men congregate, including VA hospitals. VA numbers support that claim.
Out of the estimated 8.1 million enrollees in VA health care in 2009, only 485,398 were female, as opposed to more than 7.6 million male enrollees, according the VA and HUD study.
Of female veterans enrolled in VA health services in 2009, 37 percent utilized mental health services, according to the VA.
With men outnumbering women in the service and more male veterans taking advantage of the mental health services, some female veterans stay away.
“If you were going to do group therapy, there are things that you can’t talk about in a group with a bunch of men, because they can’t relate,” Lambert said.
Lambert finally entered counseling in 2007, but only after she went to the VA for treatment of a fused disc in her back, the result of an injury suffered while on active duty.
Lambert now works for Women Veterans Social Justice. She organizes meet-ups of local veterans and participates in local veteran service drives such as the recent Stand Down event at St. John Baptist Church in Gainesville.
She also hosts the organization’s new radio show, which is broadcasted by UNG’s Decibel Radio.
“Trying to (change) the societal way of thinking (about female veterans) is my personal goal,” she said.
The public can help the female veteran population in many ways, including offering a hand to a segment of the population not used to asking for one.
“Ask (female veterans) if there’s anything I can do for you,” Watkins said. “Ask ‘Can I run to the grocery store for you?’ We oftentimes don’t ask for help because of our pride, but we need help.”
Watkins still works with the VFW, helping male and female veterans navigate the civilian world.
“I give back to my community and my fellow veterans by being an advocate,” Watkins said.
She helps fellow veterans file claims with the VA, taking them to the VA for their first appointments and gathering records, among even bigger tasks.
“I feed (my fellow veterans). I house them. Because we are the same, and as I reach out to others, that helps me.”
A big part of Lambert’s and Watkins’ service to their fellow female veterans is just being visible to the community.
“(Female veterans) all have at some point the feeling that we can’t be the only one,” Lambert said. “We can’t be the only one going through this, whatever it may be.”
For more information, visit www.wvsj.org.