When Carol “Cat” Corchado retired from the Air Force after spending 20 years serving in communications and project management roles, she believed she would be a “first-round draft pick for employers.”
“It wasn’t even close,” Corchado said. “When I got out, the road was not paved. It was dirt.”
It was 2000, and she was armed with her résumé and discharge papers.
“If you’ve been in for a long time, you have this dream of what being a civilian is going to be like,” she said, “and of all of the things you get to do.”
But Corchado quickly realized that her decades of experience in the field weren’t always valued by employers in the civilian workforce.
She recalled one instance where she applied for a position as a project manager, thinking it would perfectly suit her background, but the prospective employer told her that her résumé was missing one thing: a college degree.
“ ‘Did you see the 20 years?’ ” Corchado said she asked in the interview. “It was almost like it didn’t even matter.”
It took three months and numerous dead-end interviews to land her first post-military job at a fitness club in Boston as a gym coordinator, but she said it took years for her to find fulfillment in her work.
Now Corchado, 64, is a fitness trainer, a job she enjoys because she can work flexible hours and come home in time to have dinner with her son and husband. And she also works at WoVeN, a nationwide network of female veterans helping one another to transition into civilian life.
For women who have left military service, 40 percent report searching a year or more before being able to secure stable employment. This is in sharp contrast to their male colleagues, less than 20 percent of whom say they looked more than a year, according to the Institute for Veterans and Military Families.
On top of that, said Jasmine Scott, assistant women’s veterans program manager at the Virginia Department of Veterans Services, the gender wage gap adds to the frustration women veterans feel when readjusting to civilian life.
Among veterans, IVMF reported that the average annual earnings for women is roughly $56,760, while men earn $76,703 on average.
Scott said that many women are inclined — sometimes even encouraged — to accept lower-paying jobs, such as retail, social assistance or education, when they leave the military, because that’s often what they’re offered.
“A lot of the time, men are being hired into higher-paying industries,” she said.
The transition to the civilian world can be overwhelming for women veterans in other ways, too, said Kaitlynne Hetrick, a government affairs associate at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an organization seeking to bring awareness to the challenges facing post-9/11 veterans.
Women arriving home from deployment are not always valued the same way as male veterans are, she said: “While you may be doing the same job as a male, you don’t always have the same type of respect.”
Hetrick, 31, who served as an aviation electronics technician in the Navy, sees this when she is out with her husband or father.
“We’ll go out to a Veterans Day breakfast, and a waiter will say, ‘Oh, it’s so nice you came here with your dad to celebrate Veterans Day,’ ” she said. “But then my dad will say, ‘Oh no, she’s a veteran, too.’ ”
She said she has heard about women going to seek care at a Department of Veterans Affairs facility and being asked for their husband’s badge number or other form of identification.
“They’re not really thinking about the fact that there is this whole other cohort of veterans,” she said.
When Patricia Hayes was appointed chief officer for women’s health for VA in 2007, she said changing the culture around the recognition and respect for female veterans was a top priority.
Since she took on the role, Hayes said the organization has launched transition programs for veterans, including a call center for women staffed primarily by female veterans.
“We try to say so passionately, ‘Please give us a chance. We think we’re different. Just call the call center and have a try at talking to someone,’ ” Hayes said.
Since 2013, Hayes said, the call center has reached out to 1.6 million female veterans who were not previously using VA services.
Corchado said that when she left the Air Force more than 20 years ago, she was one of many women who weren’t made aware of any VA services available to assist them in the transition to civilian life.
According to Hayes, this is historically because male veterans learned about VA assistance programs through clubs they were in or from their friends, but women may not have had access to those groups at the time.
Amelia Peacock, 38, wore many different hats when she left the Marine Corps in 2005 at 22, including stints as a research assistant, fleet manager and insurance representative.
But she quickly realized that none of them complemented the skills that made her successful in the military.
“One of the things I had trouble with [in the civilian workforce] … is because I could see ideas and implement plans and get things straightened out and organized, I was despised by so many males,” Peacock said, “just because I was a female doing it.”
Corchado, too, struggled with relating to civilian co-workers and butted heads with managers, who she said saw her as overly assertive.
“The reason for that is because, a lot of times, women [in the military] are put in charge of millions of dollars’ worth of people and assets — including men,” Corchado said.
Servicewomen must behave aggressively in the military to ensure that their orders are obeyed and taken seriously by the lower ranks, she said.
The military, she said, is “really a masculine culture”: “It’s hard to adapt going back to a non-masculine culture where there’s expectations for you as a woman to be a certain way.”
As a result, both Corchado and Peacock said they felt lonely and isolated, and it wasn’t until they tapped into organizations dedicated to connecting female veterans that they felt understood.
In 2017, Peacock became involved with Grace After Fire, an organization aimed at empowering female veterans, after attending a women’s veterans empowerment expo in Houston.
“For me, it was a lifeline,” said Peacock, who now works as an outreach coordinator for the nonprofit group, where she provides peer support and resources for other female veterans.
Corchado agreed. “No one else understands a veteran better than another veteran,” she said. At WoVeN, Corchado helps facilitate group discussions among women veterans about their experiences.
She said her work inspired her to launch her own podcast, “Sisters-in-Service,” at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic to provide a platform for female veterans to share their trials and triumphs both in-service and in their post-military lives.
Episodes focus on a wide variety of topics, but frequently touch on mental health concerns and the “invisible wound of military trauma.”
Many service members suffer trauma during their deployment. But for women, the issue is compounded by high rates of sexual assault in the military — with one in four reporting being sexually assaulted while serving, the New York Times reported.
Because servicewomen often have a greater burden of trauma exposure during their time in the military, they are at an increased risk for suicide and other mental health issues compared with nonmilitary women, according to Disabled American Veterans.
They also face the stigma surrounding mental health, which Corchado said perpetuates negative stereotypes about veterans being “damaged.”
While for some female veterans post-military life is a struggle for recognition and career fulfillment, for others, the difficulties they face in the job market can be dire. Veterans Affairs found that women make up the fastest-growing segment of the veteran homeless population, and veterans who are single mothers face compounded financial struggles.
“After getting out of the military, [single mothers] have to find a job, she has to find child care, she has to find schools,” Corchado said. “So not only is she transitioning, but she has a lot of other stuff going on.”
Corchado, who became a single parent at age 17 before enlisting in the Air Force, said that she relied on other military families’ help with child care for her son while she worked long hours. Corchado’s son was an adult by the time she retired, but she said that single parents still raising children who leave the service are left to navigate the world of parenting alone.
“I could see very, very clearly and easily how that could be a detriment to succeeding in the transition from being in the military to being a civilian,” Corchado said.
“But then you get the job, and you’re settled, and you kind of go, ‘What’s missing?’ ” Corchado said. “It’s that sense of community. It’s that sense of connection.”
Corchado and Peacock say they are dedicated to fostering community among female veterans across the country through their post-military work at their organizations.
“It’s an honor and a privilege to wear the uniform,” Corchado said. “I’m here to speak on it and connect with these other women veterans and know that we all did the same thing regardless of the branch that we served.”
Being a woman and a veteran, she said, is “an incredibly small but unique club.”