The small computer lab set aside for military students on the Gainesville campus of the University of North Georgia is empty except for two women chatting in the back.
Sgt. Didi Ucherkemur runs a hand through her multihued hair while Sgt. Tonya Butler-Collins fills her in on the details of an upcoming engagement.
Butler-Collins, an assistant professor of health, physical education and recreation at UNG, also is a self-deemed “deadly flutist.” She joined the U.S. Army in 1990 and played flute, piccolo and oboe around the world in the U.S. Army Band.
She explained that most women, like men, join the military to fulfill their civic duty and give themselves opportunities they might not have otherwise had.
“My true passion was music,” Butler-Collins said. “I came from a very poor family, and I just wanted to go to college and see the world. Period.”
The military gave her the opportunity to follow her passions around the globe by playing music for dignitaries, including for then-President Bill Clinton.
Ucherkemur, the youngest of 12 siblings, said she wanted to join the military to do something on her own. The Palau native joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 2006 and served in Iraq as an electrical engineer and a Lioness, part of an all-female search team.
By the time Ucherkemur turned 21, she’d already held several leadership roles, won a meritorious service award and was training to become a Lioness.
“As a woman trying to lead a lot of men in that kind of atmosphere, it gets very stressful,” she said. “They look up to you and expect you to be perfect. But you can’t be perfect. You’re bound to make mistakes, but you can’t afford to make mistakes.”
While both women have vastly different experiences in the military, the duo share many of the same challenges women face as they transition back into the civilian life.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs Women Veterans Task Force, women make up the fastest growing unit of veterans. As of September, Georgia ranks fifth in the country in number of female veterans at 106,857. The U.S. Census Bureau 2012 American Community Survey reports 939 of the 12,495 veterans in Hall County are women, about 7.5 percent.
Nationally, women make up about 8 percent of the veteran population in 2011. That number is expected to increase to 10.7 percent by 2020, according to the task force and based on projections from Census data.
According to the task force, female veterans often face higher physical and mental health needs, more instances of military sexual trauma, higher rates of homelessness and other challenges than their male counterparts.
Many of the biggest barriers women face while serving in the military and after returning home are social.
“My biggest mission is to get other women to understand that they are part of the problem when women transition out of the military,” Butler-Collins said. “... The problem is a lot of people just detach or don’t know how to talk to women. It’s an honorable thing for men but oftentimes women see other women as a sell-out, that we compromised our femininity. That we’re not a real woman anymore or we want to be a man. Men look at us as we’re trying to compete with them and act and dress like a man.”
After serving for six years active duty and two in the reserves, Butler-Collins left the military as a sergeant. But the eight-year veteran was unable to find a job as a civilian. She eventually got a job as a bartender.
Butler-Collins laughs and said she’d worked with the president but couldn’t find a job as an office manager.
Part of the problem, she said, comes from civilians not knowing how to translate military service into job skills. The other part comes from communication barriers.
“We’re strong leaders,” Butler-Collin said. “When you work in an environment where other people aren’t, it’s hard for them to take that. Especially being in the South, where women are stereotypically supposed to be more passive. People pay attention to that. They don’t know how to handle you.
“Most of us women veterans are not passive,” she continued. “They knock that out of you in a short amount of time, because we’ve got to be leaders and there is no time for that.”
Ucherkemur said the same strength she used to lead Marines in Iraq, isolated her from family and friends as a civilian. She said she often felt frustrated with her older siblings who didn’t understand why she didn’t carry herself the same way she had before the war. She also couldn’t understand why civilians weren’t more goal-oriented and self-disciplined. Seeing people not trying to be their best made her feel angry after everything she’d been through and witnessed.
“I had to take a whole year off to relax and not be so neurotic about everything,” Ucherkemur said. “I had to realize that I can’t control everything. I don’t have that kind of responsibility anymore. I have to take care of myself now.”
Ucherkemur is now studying biological engineering at the university. She aspires, through experimental biomedical engineering, to help wounded troops who have lost limbs.
“I felt like I built a family in the military,” Ucherkemur said. “So I will always have their backs.”
Both will participate in a panel discussion at a WomenSource meeting following the screening of a documentary about female veterans at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Quinlan Visual Arts Center in Gainesville.
Butler-Collins said she organized the WomenSource event with the intention of increasing awareness and encouraging support of female veterans in the community.