From serving in a war zone to dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to becoming Ms. Veteran America 2016, Molly Mae Potter shares her story about being in the Air Force and then transitioning to civilian life. She opens up about her experiences with PTSD and the role her family's dog, Bella, played in her healing. Read her interview to learn what it was like being a woman in the military, when she was diagnosed with and finally got treatment for PTSD, and her thoughts on how others can support women veterans.
Q: What was it like to be a woman in the Air Force?
A: When I entered the Air Force, I never really thought of it as "I am a woman joining the military." I viewed it with a sense of duty, and it filled my desire to serve my country and satisfied my drive for adventure and hard work.
I commissioned into the Air Force through Officer Training School in 2007, and I became a flight test engineer in the Air Force. I was one of few women in my military career field. I loved being a military test engineer. I loved flying in fighter aircraft. And I loved wearing the uniform and serving my country. Every day, I woke up proud of what I was doing and that I was representing women in a very challenging and demanding career field that required a high level of technical comprehension to be successful.
However, I quickly realized that being one of few women in a very demanding career field required a great level of precision, discipline, and excellence at all times. If I messed up, people noticed.
Q: What were your PTSD symptoms like when they first started?
A: I didn't realize how much I had been affected by a 2010 deployment to Afghanistan. While I was there, I experienced traumatic events and sustained a traumatic brain injury from a base rocket attack. When I returned, I tried to get on with my life and focus on my new job, but I noticed something wasn't right.
I wanted to be back in Afghanistan. As horrible as deployment may have seemed, at least I was surrounded by people who understood the experience of being in a war zone. Once I returned to my suburban life and was at an office engineering job on an Air Force base, I felt irritable and out of place. I started obsessive behaviors and did not want to be home alone with my thoughts. I was the first at work and the last to leave. I started running one to two hours every day (I was not a runner before I deployed). I became obsessed with my weight and got very thin very quickly. I developed insomnia. I had always been a very mellow, happy-go-lucky, and social southern gal, but I found myself isolating myself from family and friends and snapping at people around me. My marriage very quickly started to fall apart. I felt like I was in my own depressed world where no one understood anything about me, and I couldn't connect with anyone or anything that wasn't related to what I experienced in Afghanistan.
Only eight months after deployment, I was at a new job with new people in a new state. I was also struggling every day with self-loathing, horrific night terrors, memory lapses, and anxiety. However, my job required me to be the best of the best with the top test pilots and engineers in the military. I was one of about three women in this position, and I felt daily pressure to perform at 110% all the time.
I developed habits and put up personal walls to make it seem like I had my life together, but inside and at home alone, I was a total mess and no one knew. I figured it was just a stage and that I would be able to overcome it all on my own. Meanwhile the lack of sleep, the depression, and my eating disorder were catching up with me, and my protective barriers were quickly collapsing.
Q: Can you tell us about your journey to get to the PTSD diagnosis?
A: In the spring of 2013, I was in a car accident after coming home from work. (I had been flying for work that day.) It was after that accident that I realized I couldn't keep my guard up. I surrendered and admitted my mental health and personal struggles to my family, friends, and the military. I had a wonderful military commander at the time who worked hard to ensure that I got the help I needed.
I was taken off of flying duty, and for the following months, my full-time job in the military was my PTSD treatment. It was very hush-hush that I was receiving treatment. There is still a lot of stigma around needing mental health treatment in the military. It became apparent that people believed getting treatment would kill my career. It felt like people were looking at me and thinking: "Don't you know your reputation as an officer is ruined? Don't you know you have just killed your flying career? Don't you know that people now think you are crazy?"
Q: What has really helped you and made a positive difference on your road to recovery?
A: During my treatment — which at the time was progressing fairly slowly — my mother decided to send me Bella, my family's dog, to keep me company. She is a mellow mutt that likes to cuddle, and my mom figured that her company would help ease my anxiety while going through intensive treatment. She was right. As soon as Bella came into my life, my progress in therapy excelled. She kept me calm during the day. She got me out of the house to take her on walks. She snuggled with me at night and helped ease my nightmares. My mood started to improve and my overall outlook on life was more optimistic. My therapist suggested making her a therapy dog so I could take her more places and it would help get me out of the house more.
Bella even helped improve my sleep. She began waking me up from night terrors and would calm me when I woke up. Before long, with Bella by my side, I could stop using my sleep and several other mood-balancing medicines.
Since I was making such awesome progress in my therapy with Bella, my commanders wanted to get me back in uniform and back at work. They found a great job for me where I could still have time to focus on therapy and work with low stress. But when I showed up with Bella, the base commander got upset. There was no regulation in the Air Force policy that allowed for active duty Air Force members to have a service dog in uniform (by that time Bella had since become registered as an official service dog). Instead of leaving Bella at home, I immediately contacted the Chief of Staff of the Air Force and told him my situation, and he welcomed Bella in the Air Force and helped change the policy.
I spent my last few months in the Air Force working with the Pentagon to ensure that service dogs for active duty Airmen are a means for PTSD treatment and suicide prevention. I felt like my time in the Air Force had been spent well and I wanted to end on a high note. I was honorably discharged from the Air Force in November 2013 — with Bella by my side.
Q: Do you have advice for other women veterans who are living with PTSD?
A: At the end of the day, the women who join the military and then become veterans usually have type-A personalities, and they're people who serve their country honorably and work hard to be self-sufficient. However, they're not taught how to seek help or support. Instead, they're taught to build protective walls and how to focus on accomplishing a mission without complaining and without failing. I believe this is what plants the seeds for homelessness and untreated mental health issues that veterans can face long after they hang up their uniform.
Q: How can families best support women veterans with PTSD?
A: It's really all about being there and being present. The best thing a family can do is encourage the veteran to find support in a healthy manner. Getting through PTSD and getting treatment isn't the same for everyone. However, it does take great family support to make sure the veteran doesn't give up on the journey in fighting PTSD. Celebrate progress and small victories, ask the veteran how they are doing and be a listening ear, and be patient. Progress doesn't happen overnight.
Q: How can communities support women veterans?
A: The first step a community can take is recognizing women veterans for their service and getting women veterans to identify themselves. Many women veterans do not self-identify, and therefore, they do not know that services and support are available to them.
Additionally, support for women veterans needs to be built from the ground up, not as an afterthought attachment to an existing program for male veterans. Women veterans come with unique needs, such as child care and specific health needs. When women veterans are recognized appropriately and their unique needs are met, a community can start to build a successful and strong network for women veterans who can be productive members of the community.
Lastly, I want the media and communities to highlight combat veterans who get support when they need it and help other veterans do the same.
Q: You were crowned Ms. Veteran American 2016 — Congratulations! What was that experience like?
A: Being Ms. Veteran America 2016 has been transformational. For the first time since leaving the military in 2013, I finally feel like I have found my calling for giving back to my country. Working hard to fight for the issues facing my fellow sisters in arms is what gives me energy every day. It's my passion and I feel like it is my duty, and I'm not alone. The Ms. Veteran America competition has built this amazing network and movement of female veterans united for female veterans to make sure that we never leave one of our sister comrades behind.