Life of a Female Veteran: U.S. Army Combat Pilot Veteran Erica Courtney (part 5 of 6)

NAWRB

Desirée Patno is the CEO & President of Women in the Housing and Real Estate Ecosystem (NAWRB) and Desirée Patno Enterprises, Inc. (DPE). With almost three decades specializing in the Housing and Real Estate Ecosystem, she leads her executive team’s expertise of advancing women’s economic growth and independence.

It had been some years now since I got out of active duty. I had ‘transitioned.’ However, it was obvious to me that my veteran community was suffering and struggling to adapt to this new world on the outside. As I travelled the country on business, I would frequently end up sitting next to veterans on a plane. Once the veteran connection was established, when they could get past my gender and realize I was in the fight alongside them, they would offload their personal stories. Many had never shared these things with their own families. I would listen and advise if possible. 

After years of this, it became apparent that something wasn’t working. Why was I constantly being bombarded with this heavy stuff? I tried ignoring it but then started dissecting the events. Veterans want to talk to veterans— not white coats, not federally-funded programs stemming around entrepreneurship where they handle hundreds of people led by a non-business owner, and not corporate America attempting to give them a job. They wanted connections with people who understood them. Perhaps being a female was also non-threatening and these guys could be vulnerable? 

Many veterans don’t want handouts; they want purpose. They want camaraderie and miss a bit of the military culture. I went to the Veterans Administration (VA) and explained what had been happening, advocating that they should look into peer-to-peer methods more. I suggested that women veterans should lead programs, because in some cases men can offload their stories more easily to a woman. As a former Military Police prior to being an aviator, I dealt with disgruntled men all the time, but very rarely would they lash out at me, because of my size. They had to think about my position and they were not going to hurt me. I could talk them down without resorting to aggression to calm the situation. Perhaps male veterans have less to prove to a female veteran? 

The questions I posed to the VA went unheard. This made me angrier. What are we doing as a society to help my fellow brothers and sisters in arms? They are suffering but they are extremely capable! National treasures. I dug into the research and found that throwing money at the problem wasn’t working. Billions spent on mental health yet less that 10 percent of veterans seek it and only a handful of them experience positive results. Male veterans were committing suicide at twice the rate of civilian men and women veterans at a staggering six times the rate of civilian women. Higher rates of addiction, divorce and mental health problems existed. Women veterans actually suffered higher rates of everything over their male veteran counterparts in every area minus addiction. Why? What is going on? It broke my heart because I knew them when they were ‘strong’ and confident. 

The military trains service people well but does not help them transition in terms of what to expect appropriately. A month resume writing class and how to dress just doesn’t cut it. Pointing them to resources in which they get lost is not working. They have either military people that know nothing but the military or civilians who have never served. Where is the sense in that? Where can we find veterans who have lived in both worlds to help bridge the cultural gap? I looked into job placement, but the military suggests jobs veterans could be suited for from our grandfathers’ day, not the tech jobs of today. 

These placement agencies get credit for putting a veteran in a corporate job but there is no follow up. Did we really help them when half are quitting by their first year and 74 percent quit by year two? I understand this because I went through it, the inability to connect with civilians. They don’t understand or value our background because they can’t comprehend it, or the veteran simply can’t express it in a way they understand. The mission focus, teamwork and integrity are lacking, the ability to work to task and not to time. It is no one’s fault; it is a simple fact of not understanding each world. 

Veterans begin to feel like no one understands and they slowly remove themselves. If we do not catch them within three years of discharge, this is when problems arise. It is absolutely imperative for us to get this right. No more canned training programs taught by those who can’t bridge the two worlds. We must give veterans viable options and provide them purpose again. We must have veterans mentor other veterans because of that inherent respect and camaraderie. Veterans provide necessary and familiar tough love with one another. 

While I was researching I found something astonishing. Forty percent of veterans are going into business for themselves as opposed to 10 percent during the Vietnam era. That’s it, of course! Veterans have the skills; they just need the guidance from other veterans. The majority of the Vietnam era veterans are starting to retire, leaving a huge void in the economy if we don’t let the younger generations know they are needed. The younger generations can take over the businesses through acquisition or other means. Now the older generation has more of a nest egg and their lives work is not all for naught. Many younger veterans don’t know what they want to do so this is a perfect opportunity. The veterans who know need organizations from which they can seek guidance in a meaningful way.

As my company grew and I landed some great contracts working on distribution projects for low-income energy efficient housing, delivering new parent kits to clinics and hospitals across the state of California and performing drone as a service for multiple industries seeking to improve efficiencies, I found an organization that helped me along the way called the Disabled Veteran Business Alliance (DVBA)-now the USVBA. It is the longest-running veteran organization focusing on entrepreneurship through advocacy, training and mentorship. There were seasoned veteran business owners as well as some start-ups, all looking to connect and help each other grow. It was the people that kept bringing me back with the long track record of success for our veterans. 

I volunteered in San Francisco, and then became a Board member and eventually the first female BOD President working hard to incorporate both generations of veterans in a meaningful way. I found out quickly that this community is run by a lot of older gentlemen that are territorial instead of collaborative. These men had no idea what to make of me, but I was used to that. In order for the community to prosper, we have to collaborate and not reinvent the wheel, making it more confusing for veterans and supporters alike. There is plenty of business to go around and it is our duty to bring up the ones behind us-just as the Vietnam veterans did for us. 

Along this journey, I got to know leaders from across the country doing right by veterans. They are out there but get lost in the noise. 42,000 organizations dedicated to veterans and their families. Too many. We need to alert transitioning soldiers about options and organizations so they know who to contact as they go through the cycle. Veterans attend school, work, quit, and either pick themselves up or fall prey to the negative statistics. Let’s get them on the positive side of the statistics. Offer them options like entrepreneurship, UN, USAID, DoS security missions making differences in communities, non profit and community work etc. Veterans often want to continue to serve, something other than themselves, after discharge. Corporate job placement should only be one of the options upon leaving.  

While speaking at Stanford University, I met the Lieutenant Colonel in charge of Army cadets for the region headquartered at Santa Clara University. He asked if I could share some of my combat arms experiences with the cadets, especially since the law to allow women in all combat arms positions had been recently signed into law. The Army had a plan to integrate women in areas they never served in previously over the course of the next three years. Since I was part of this movement only 10 years prior, my expertise could potentially prepare both male and female leaders for things to come from a firsthand account. I agreed and enjoyed the experience. 

I came to find out that there was not one women SROTC instructor for the entire northern California region at UC Davis, UC Berkeley, UCSF and other educational institutions. This baffled me. Where were the women behind me? One thing led to another and, after a seven-year break in service, I re-commissioned into the U.S. Army Reserve to help mentor the next generation. Many top leaders think they know, but unless you are a woman in a leadership position, you can’t know. I would give about 20 hours a month to the program and saw that not much changed in the way the Army approached gender. It consisted of mandatory sexual harassment and equal opportunity training. 

Now having seen both worlds at this point, I was able to bring a touch of civilian knowledge to the program. I had seen the authors of  “Men are from Mars, Women Are from Venus” and some other scientific types speak in Silicon Valley. I learned that men and women have scientific differences and it is no secret we approach things differently sometimes. Let’s be aware of these differences and respect the other gender. It’s all about balance. 

From the beginning of mankind men would have to hunt, focus and show strength to protect their territory. Women would have to collaborate amongst mothers, aunts, grandmothers and children while maintaining the peace. Women are said to be better at multi-taskers and communicators, and pay attention to detail. Men can focus, are good at directions and are generally physically stronger. The military could use both. 

I created a program to create an environment of cohesiveness. My cadets nominated me for National Instructor of the Year and I won. I did not have much time in my schedule to wear a uniform again, but I felt compelled to help where I knew there was a gap. It was very strange for me to put on a uniform again, which had changed twice since the last time I wore one during the height of Iraq and Afghanistan. I had to make sure I was physically and mentally prepared and began hitting the track to ensure I could keep up with those young cadets. I had no problem and maxed my physical test. But, unlike when I was in my twenties, I felt it for a few days after! Ouch. I never let them know that though. Over the years, you learn to never let em’ see you sweat. Served me well. Now I am entering another chapter of service myself-veterans and the next generation of Army leaders. A fire in the belly is what leads to passion. Passion to make a difference. To be part of the solution. 

 

 

Erica Courtney

President of 2020vet and Zulu Time

U.S. Army Aviation, Major

NATO Gender Advisor

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