Sister Soldiers

Lisa Rab, Charlotte Magazine
Sister Soldiers

Military and government agencies have done little to help female veterans transition into civilian life. Three veterans at UNC Charlotte decided to forge their own paths.

Victoria Blumenberg walked into the counseling center at UNC Charlotte in September 2011 with a plea: “I really have a problem. I literally tried to slice my wrists last night and I couldn’t even tell you why. I really couldn’t give you a legitimate reason why. But everything in me wants this.”

It was not the first time the then-twenty-six-year-old former Air Force reservist had attempted suicide. Since returning from four tours in Kuwait and Baghdad, she’d tried overdosing on Ambien. She’d called the Department of Veterans Affairs suicide hotline, landed in the hospital, and started taking an antidepressant. But her desire to die only increased. Now the alarmed counselors at UNCC took her to Presbyterian Hospital, where she stayed for two weeks.

While doctors blamed the VA-prescribed antidepressant for exacerbating her suicidal thoughts, it was clear pills weren’t the only problem. Here was a soldier who had seemed to conquer civilian life: studying geography at UNCC, serving as president of the campus veteran’s club, dating a supportive guy. But she was still haunted by the memory of whistling rockets. Crowds made her anxious, loud noises frightened her. For a long time, she got drunk every night so she wouldn’t be able to dream.

Lately her days were filled with listening and sympathizing and advocating on behalf of other veterans, and it wasn’t healthy. Perhaps, her boyfriend suggested, she shouldn’t spend every waking moment thinking about the military. Maybe it was time to broaden her social circle.

Not long afterward, a bubbly blonde girl approached Blumenberg while she was studying on campus. She asked if Blumenberg would like to attend a sorority recruitment event.

No, Blumenberg said. She was too old. Too damaged. But the girl insisted.

“I had no idea what I was being invited to,” Blumenberg remembers. “I was like, ‘Yeah, sure. I’ll go’—with no intention of going.”

After more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, far too many veterans sound like Blumenberg. Nearly 40 percent of post-9/11 veterans say they suffer from post-traumatic stress, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center survey. Among all veterans, an average of eighteen a day kill themselves. And the government agencies designed to help them are failing miserably. In 2011, a federal appeals court in Virginia called the VA’s inability to provide proper mental health care “unchecked incompetence.”

Before joining the military at seventeen, Blumenberg was a cheerleader who earned high marks in school.

Between 2003 and 2007, Blumenberg served three tours in Kuwait and one in Iraq. During her first few years back home with her mom and stepdad in Concord, she did her best to self-destruct. She knew she had PTSD but wasn’t sure what to do about it. So she went out and got smashed every night, dated abusive guys, got arrested for driving drunk.

She tried group therapy for veterans, but grew tired of listening to some newbie, fresh back from the desert, dominate the conversation with his misery. She also tried individual counseling. But as an intelligence analyst, trained to manipulate and interrogate the enemy, she could outsmart the shrink. Besides, most of what she’s seen and heard is classified. “How do I really talk through the things that I need to talk through, when I swore, and basically signed in blood, that I would never share that information for the rest of my natural life?” she says.

She’s also a woman. According to the nonprofit veteran support group Charlotte Bridge Home, anywhere from 20 to 48 percent of the nation’s 1.6 million female veterans were repeatedly sexually harassed or assaulted while serving their country. They have higher rates of unemployment than their male counterparts, and they are the fastest-growing segment of America’s homeless population. But the military bureaucracy is still a boys’ club. Although nearly 20 percent of the 6,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in Mecklenburg County are women, the VA is not prepared to help this growing segment of the population.

So Blumenberg and other veterans are forced to forge their own paths. “When I joined Sigma Kappa, I was basically blindly reaching out for anything to help me balance my life out,” she says.

On Bid Day in January 2012,  Blumenberg walked into a house with an enormous, open living room, cafeteria-bare floors, cushy couches, and chintzy chairs. There were balloons everywhere. On the walls, framed photos of smiling women in formal gowns. But mostly, what she noticed was the crowd. A nervous, chattering horde of women—some nearly a decade younger than her—was chanting and giggling and playing get-to-know-you games.

Blumenberg smiled to mask her terror. “I walked in, and it was just shocking,” she says. “I didn’t even have time to have a panic attack. I didn’t even comprehend what was going on around me.”

But the women of Sigma Kappa didn’t seem to notice. They offered her pizza. They invited her to play a game. “She just jumped right into conversation,” remembers Elizabeth Strohminger, a twenty-one-year-old senior.

Strohminger, small and blonde and cheery, knew right away that she wanted Blumenberg to be her “little sister” in the sorority. “She was pretty amazing right off the bat,” Strohminger says. “Everyone really liked her. She just exudes a little bit more maturity than most people do.”

In some ways, Blumenberg had all the ingredients to become a perfect sorority sister.

On the one hand, she’s G.I. Jane, an enemy weapons expert who tracked down and killed the people who fired rockets at her military base in Iraq. She’s also a former cheerleader. In high school photos she had broad shoulders, long brown hair, eyes that laughed at the camera. Before joining the military at age seventeen, she sang in choir, got good grades, thrived in the shelter of the Cleveland suburbs.    

Ten months after Bid Day, she sits in the Sigma Kappa house living room on a fall afternoon. Her hair is chopped in a blunt bob, complemented by aviators and a silver nose ring. Her laugh is smoky and brittle. When she talks about her time in Baghdad, her tone is caustic, laced with sarcasm.

“Rocket attacks?” she says. “Not the most fun thing you’ve ever been through.”

She remembers the high-pitched whine the rockets made. When they got closer, they roared like fighter jets. Blumenberg would throw herself on the ground, praying not to get hit. Once, a rocket landed fifty feet from her, destroying the briefing room where she was about to give a presentation. Sometimes she looks at her sorority sisters and thinks, “You have no idea what I was doing at your age. It would blow your mind.”

Blumenberg discusses this without crying. She doesn’t drop her gaze. There’s no way to guess her emotions, except that she’s tugging at the ends of her long shirtsleeves, wrapping her fingers in the fabric.

Every few minutes one of the sorority girls wanders into the room, and it feels like a balloon has popped. Blumenberg snaps out of her memories, stands up to greet them. “Hey!” she says, all brightness and cheer.

If she trusted a shrink, the doctor might call this depersonalization, a coping mechanism adopted by some people who have experienced severe trauma. One of the symptoms is feeling detached and numb, as if observing thoughts from outside your own body. Blumenberg knows that feeling. “It feels like I’m talking about someone else’s life,” she says.

Many national organizations devoted to serving veterans have never heard of former soldiers joining sororities. “I really don’t know of anyone who is tracking that,” says Meg Mitcham, director of veterans programs at the American Council on Education.

“I don’t think we have much to add,” says Katy Otto, spokesperson for the Service Women’s Action Network.

Alison Jenner, assistant director of veteran student services at UNCC, can’t say how many of the hundreds of veterans on the school’s campus are involved in Greek life, but she considers it a good thing. “I don’t think it’s very common, but I think it’s a great opportunity for them to build a connection with the university and build relations with other students that are nonveterans,” she says.

Evonne Parker, who retired from the Air Force thirteen years ago, joined the Delta Sigma Theta chapter at UNCC last spring. Her sister-in-law was already a member of the historically African American sorority, along with famous women she admires—CNN journalist Soledad O’Brien, civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer—so it seemed like a natural step. The group’s commitment to philanthropy appealed to her, particularly a program for mentoring and empowering preteen women. Helping young girls is her passion; she is studying to be a social worker and teacher. “[I was] just like, wow, this is definitely something I want to be a part of.”

Sitting outside Panera in Northlake Mall on a sunny fall morning, the forty-two-year-old Parker fits the role of college student well. Tiny and adorable in jeans and a Delta Sigma Theta T-shirt, her dark braided hair is pulled back from her face in an elaborately twisted bun. She’s busy mothering a woman she just met.

She asks if the traffic was bad getting here. She notices a bee hovering around the table. “Are you shooing a bee? Don’t shoo a bee,” she scolds, gently waving away the insect.

This mothering thing is a big part of her life. She has three kids of her own, and recently, one of her Delta sisters asked her to accompany her to a doctor’s appointment. Parker was thrilled. “To have somebody feel like you have their back ...” she says, trailing off. “So far, I’ve got thirty-six new sisters that I love and adore.”

Her Delta sisters don’t ask about her military experience. They’re not clamoring to know that she survived a terrorist bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996. Or that, thanks to that trauma, she suffers from PTSD and debilitating migraines. Their ignorance is fine with her. It’s part of what she fought for. “They’re cute, and they’re really wrapped up in themselves, and I want them to be ... they have no clue.”

 Nearly 20 percent of post-9/11 Mecklenburg County veterans are women.

Of course, not all the college kids are ignorant. Lauren Myatt, a twenty-one-year-old UNCC student, is also a computer analyst for the National Guard. She grew up in Fayetteville surrounded by men—her dad, who was second-generation Army, his military pals, her younger brothers. When she joined Sigma Kappa two years ago, all she wanted was to make friends with women.

Myatt looks the sorority girl part: thin and delicate, with perfectly straight brown hair, dark eyeliner, pale, shimmering shadow beneath her brows. But during basic training, she had to forgo all of that. No makeup, no scented soap. She had to swap her contacts for standard-issue BCGs, or “birth control glasses”—big, square, hideous things nicknamed because of their utter lack of sex appeal. During a twelve-mile march carrying her weapon and all her gear, she fractured her foot. It was the worst two months of her life, she says.

She had wanted to participate in sorority rush her first year of school, but because of military obligations didn’t have time until she returned from basic training in September 2010. She spent a week attending the obligatory parties with a high heel on one foot and an enormous boot brace on the other.

In her head, she pictured the Legally Blonde version of Greek life. She worried about befriending girls who drove fancy cars and never had to worry where their tuition checks might come from. But she was determined to make it work. Other than a best friend she met through the military, she didn’t have many women she could count on. At bars, female friends had a tendency to wander off and leave her unprotected—a sin her military friends would never commit. “When we say we have each other’s back, we mean that one hundred and ten percent,” Myatt says. “I expect other people to be like that, so it makes me mad that they’re not.”  

But some of her Sigma Kappa sisters surprised her. When she left for training, they wrote to ask how she was doing. She learned not to judge them by the way they looked or the cars they drove. Still, they often don’t understand why she has to miss sorority events because of National Guard requirements. Sometimes it seems like being in a sorority is just one more obligation for Myatt to fulfill. So why does she bother?

“I think we just wanted to become part of something,” she says, and pauses, a long pause that gives you a chance to remember that the military made her part of something. “Else,” she adds. She wanted to be part of something else.

U nlocking her car before heading to the sorority house last fall, Blumenberg tosses a swatch of black sequined fabric from her passenger seat. “Oh sorry, I have crafting stuff everywhere,” she says.

The material was part of a present for her “little sister.” She’s also carting around a pink heart, made of some sort of ribbons, for her “heart sister.” The paint is peeling on her orange Mazda, and it smells of stale cigarettes.

When she first joined Sigma Kappa, Blumenberg wasn’t sure how to relate to the other girls. Not only had they never seen combat, they also didn’t grow up watching the same movies or coveting the same boy bands. Once, without thinking, a younger girl asked her if she had ever been out of the country. “At times, it was very frustrating because I wasn’t really sure how to make that work,” Blumenberg says. “All they knew was that I was this older girl that was a combat veteran.”

Still, it was nice not to spend every minute of every day thinking about war scars. Listening to the girls’ petty social dramas, who kissed whom—it was refreshing. They all went ice-skating one night, goofing off. They watched The Hunger Games together at the sorority house. Blumenberg grew close to some of the older sisters, especially the ones who served on the sorority’s executive board.

It wasn’t until she got sick that she realized how essential they had become.

Less than a month after she was initiated into Sigma Kappa, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. She figured it was a souvenir from the artillery shell casings in Iraq, which were made with radioactive uranium. Since thyroid illness can affect a person’s mood, the doctors told her the cancer might have contributed to her depression and suicidal thoughts. Blumenberg had no idea how it might be treated, or the risks involved. She was terrified.

Her boyfriend, the man she calls the love of her life, couldn’t handle the news. They broke up when she received her diagnosis. Blumenberg freaked out—cut off her hair, died it orange. She could easily have fallen back into her habit of self-destruction. But her new sisters wouldn’t let her.

They called as soon as they heard about the diagnosis, insisted on taking her out for a night to distract her. Two of the sisters accompanied her to her biopsy, and Strohminger was with her at the hospital on the day her thyroid was removed. “We rely heavily on each other as a sisterhood,” Strohminger explains. “It wasn’t a question. You go, you see her.”

The day her boyfriend bailed, Blumenberg broke down in tears during a meeting at the sorority house. Strohminger led her outside on the deck, and they talked until she felt better. Slowly, Blumenberg began to realize that she had more than parents and boyfriends to care for her. She had sisters.

Throughout her surgery and radiation treatment, her new friends stood by her. They reminded her of the good things in life. They demonstrated a steadiness she came to rely on. Casually, in the same even tone she uses to discuss rocket attacks, Blumenberg mentions that her sisters saved her life. “Sigma Kappa really was the only reason I made it through that. If I didn’t have Sigma Kappa when that happened to me, I would’ve been dead, ’cause I would’ve just killed myself.”

On Veterans Day the third floor of UNCC’s student union is filled with a giddy swarm of women. Roughly a hundred of them, of all races, shapes, and sizes, form a roar of estrogen—laughing, talking, sipping coffee. They file into a conference room for a Sigma Kappa chapter meeting.

Blumenberg is standing apart, in her blue Air Force uniform, her hair pulled back in a severe ponytail, fiddling with the laptop in front of a large projector screen. Lauren Myatt sits in the front row, quiet and attentive, along with Strohminger and Blumenberg’s boyfriend, with whom she has reunited.

There’s no trace of nerves as Blumenberg begins her speech. As usual, she’s telling jokes at her own expense, showing scrapbook photos of herself as a fourteen-year-old cheerleader, a girl in a pink prom dress, a smiling new graduate of basic training.

Then come the photos of a plane, piloted by one of her aircrews in Kuwait, that was nearly destroyed. She plays a YouTube video of rockets attacking a military base. She talks about the 400 caskets she saw shipped home during seven months in Iraq. The room grows quiet when she displays an image of herself in a hospital bed, medical tubes in her nose, undergoing treatment for cancer.

She urges her sisters to remember the other veterans on campus who are suffering. A 2011 survey of 628 student veterans across the country, published in the journal Professional Psychology, found that 46 percent had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and 20 percent had come up with a plan to kill themselves. Last May, a federal task force released a draft report on how to address the VA’s “gaps” in service for women. It’s a start, but Blumenberg knows there is much more work to be done. And she is lucky to have found her own way.

“I met a roomful of women who I never would’ve given a chance,” she says. “You’ve all changed my life, a lot.”

After the speech, the crowd gathers for a group photo. Blumenberg stands in the middle, straight and tall, smiling proudly. The woman beside her grabs her arm, giving her a sideways hug. Blumenberg leans down and kisses the top of her head.

Posted on BrainLine January 17, 2013.

Used with permission from Charlotte Magazine. © 2013, Charlotte Magazine.