No women’s clinic, no women’s groups when this veteran served in the 70s.
By Fenit Nirappil
A gathering of women veterans, let alone African-American women veterans, would have been alien to Agnes Ross when she left the military in 1977.
The face of veterans those days were young men bearing the emotional and physical scars of mandatory combat in Vietnam. Ross says she felt isolated and alone for decades as a personnel administrative clerk for the Marine Corps.
This Veterans Day, the 60-year-old veteran hopped on the metro from Hyattsville wearing her Washington football team jersey and jacket to meet people like her at a Women Veterans Rock event at George Washington University.
“Us women get lost in the huge group of men,” Ross said. “They see U.S. Marine, they don’t think women.”
Riding on a scooter with three flags in the basket behind her and a “U.S.M.C. sticker” on the control panel, Ross browsed tables staffed by representatives of the federal government offering services from job training to health care.
Gale Bell, who manages women’s veteran programs for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, was among those tabling. She said special outreach to women is essential.
“For so long, the VA has been a male dominated agency when women have done all they could to fight alongside their male colleagues,” said Bell, herself a veteran of the Army Nurse Corps. “But when it comes down to identifying as veterans, women wouldn’t.”
Ross doesn’t recall women’s clinics when she was discharged. This Veterans Day, she just wanted help getting a low-interest loan to buy the home she rents. She hoped to have something to pass along to her three surviving sons, she said.
An employee with the VA walked her through the steps: she’d need to find a realtor and find out how large of a loan she could qualify for.
“Even though I’ve been out so long?” Ross asked.
“That doesn’t matter.”
“Even if I’ve done drugs and alcohol? I made mistakes.”
“You’re still a veteran.”
Growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Ross dreamed of joining the Air Force and becoming a pilot. But those dreams were dashed after repeated warnings that a woman likely wouldn’t get to fly a plane.
She turned to the Marine Corps.
“There were things we couldn’t do in combat, but a Marine really could do anything,” said Ross.
She proudly boasts that she was one of the first privates to nab a job in the Camp Lejeune base battalion headquarters. It was cut short in less than two years after she was sexually assaulted.
She said she didn’t report it because she didn’t know her attacker and doubts she could identify him. Ross is happy the tepid response to military sexual assault has gained traction as a national issue and wants better services for rape victims on military bases.
“In service, it’s called ‘Suck it up, Marine,’” she said.
Instead, when she returned to civilian life in the Washington-area, she spiraled into a life of drugs and alcohol. Ross surrounded herself with tough men to feel protected, she said. It was the fear of jail that pulled her back.
Decades after leaving the military, she started seeking out veteran services for the first time. The VA started giving her monthly payments in 2012. A therapist started seeing her weekly for post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from her assault, and she went to the female trauma center in New Jersey twice.
Ross credits the federal government in recent years for acknowledging the trauma female veterans like her have been dealing with.
“You don’t have to have seen someone get killed or get their limbs blown off to have PTSD,” she said.
The American flags that cover her scooter aren’t just for Veterans Day. Ross said she displays her patriotism every day because she believes the United States uniquely recognizes and fixes decades-long problems.
“I’m living proof,” she said. “Even after what I went through, you still can’t take the Marine out of me.”