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When you’re trying to get a 100-pound rucksack to fit comfortably onto your back, you quickly realize the system just wasn’t built for you.

And it’s not just the rucksack. The gap between your M16’s pistol grip and trigger is too wide for your hand. Your Kevlar helmet falls forward over your eyes every time you move your head, destabilized by the bun coiled neatly at the nape of your neck. Even your green shorts fit funny with their inner liner briefs, baggy in all the wrong places.

Every piece of your gear, every part of your uniform, reminds you that you probably don’t belong. But it isn’t all that surprising. The entire military system, after all, was built by men, for men.

Being a female service member means being a contrarian to both military traditions and societal gender roles. While serving, we are an obvious minority. Our mere presence changes things, like the banning of the Marine Corps’ beloved “silkies” short-shorts in 2011 partly because they were not deemed modest enough for gender-integrated physical training. Once discharged back into the civilian world, we face challenges living up to the ideals of American femininity, wifehood and motherhood. After spending so long cultivating an outer shell of invulnerability, it’s hard learning to be gentle again.

Some women veterans have previously described the process of navigating this dissonance as “a uniquely lonely experience.” Many feel like “constant outsiders” while on, and then following, active duty.

Part of the problem is institutional. During active service, women suffer from the fact that most of the Department of Defense’s equipment and standards are based on the male body’s needs and abilities. Take the military’s outdated body composition standards, for instance. Preliminary research indicates these standards — grounded in male anthropometrics of weight for height calculations — overpredict body fat in more than 70 percent of service women. This mismatch has resulted in an unhealthy focus on thinness rather than fitness, with 30 percent of military women meeting the criteria for eating disorders.

Women veterans face second-class citizenship after serving, too. When it comes to reproductive health, the shortcomings of the Department of Veterans Affairs resources are well-documented. Some include the limited availability of providers trained in specialized reproductive health care, and obstetrics and gynecology services, the long wait times for both referrals and appointments, and the fact that 1 out of 4 female veterans experience inappropriate comments or behavior on VA medical facility grounds.

Another part of this problem is cultural. Many women feel isolated from peers while serving — they are often the only female in the unit — and excluded from veteran communities. Research by the Wounded Warrior Project earlier this year shows that 80 percent of wounded female veterans reported feeling lonely and disconnected from their peers — almost 20 percent higher than the men. Upon showing up to veterans clubs and events, female veterans are frequently asked where their husbands served.

I left active service in July, and now live in the heart of Washington, D.C. I’m 27, physically fit and work out every day. Despite the city’s heavy liberal bend, whenever I jog through a nearby park sporting my olive-green Marine Corps sweatshirt, or swing by my local coffee shop, Marine Corps key lanyard in hand, I inevitably get the comment and question: “Your boyfriend must be a Marine. How did you two meet?”

Experiences like these have resulted in many female service members calling themselves “invisible” veterans.

In recent years, the federal government has sought to change this. In May 2019, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs launched a new bipartisan Women Veterans Task Force aimed at increasing the visibility of women veterans as well as their access to veterans programming and resources. In January 2021, the historic Deborah Sampson Act was signed into law, expanding the amount of social, legal and medical services available to women who have served in uniform.

These are good first steps, but we desperately need a greater shift in the collective American mind-set. The VA is still resisting initiatives to change the organization’s motto to more inclusive, gender-neutral language. When we think of what a veteran looks like, and especially a combat veteran, most of us still conjure up the image of a man. We think of the male heroes who landed on the Normandy beaches, persevered through a freezing winter on the shores of the Chosin Reservoir and tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden.

And yet — there’s no stopping demographic change. Women are the fastest-growing cohort within the veteran community. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, women made up only 6 percent of the veteran population in 2000, but are projected to make up around 16 percent by 2040. And it’s a very young veteran population, with more than 30 percent having served only during the post-9/11 period. This is partly due to the relatively recent regulatory changes allowing women to serve in a greater variety of combat roles starting in the early ’90s.

While U.S. forces still experience challenges when it comes to female integration, other countries have demonstrated the prowess and potential of modern women warriors during recent conflicts. In particular, Kurdish female Pershmerga soldiers were famously feared by Islamic State fighters as they fought to reclaim territory in northern Iraq and Syria from the caliphate in the mid-2010s.

Greater female representation among American troops is a good thing for the active duty and veteran communities and for the country. Although women make up only around 16 percent of service members, they represent 23 percent of veterans who complete a degree or certificate program through the GI Bill — and go on to have ambitious careers in traditionally male-dominated fields, including tech and politics.

More than 245 years ago, on March 31, 1776, Abigail Adams wrote her husband a letter as he and other members of the Constitutional Congress deliberated the country’s new laws: “I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors.”

This Veterans Day, too, remember the ladies. We are a small group, but our numbers are growing. We are demanding greater accountability from our senior leadership: new legislation on the prosecution of military sexual trauma is currently being debated in Congress. Passage of this bill could have key implications for the well-being and safety of service women; when more than 50 percent of women are sexually harassed or assaulted in the military, it’s high time things change.

In the future, I hope a woman’s identity as a military member and veteran will be defined by her service instead of her gender. I hope the notion of a warrior evolves within the American psyche so that when I run down the block, my neighbors see a Marine instead of a girlfriend. Most critically, I hope the military’s own institutions learn to celebrate and support their female fighters — through more inclusive health care, command cultures, height and weight standards, uniforms and, of course, rucksacks.

Cybèle C. Greenberg is an editorial fellow at the New York Times. Previously, she served on active duty as a Marine Officer in Virginia Beach and Quantico.

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