Women are the fastest-growing group of military veterans in the U.S., and they have unique health care needs. And women vets are taking steps to address those needs head-on. From an Air Force vet’s personal story of healing from post-traumatic stress disorder to the Marines working to make the transition to civilian life easier, women veterans’ accomplishments do not end when their service does. Commander Carmen Fisher talks about her life in the Navy and how she worked through her anxiety about re-entering civilian life after being discharged.
Cmdr. Carmen Fisher is a nurse officer with the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps and a veteran of the U.S. Navy. She is currently stationed with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a consumer safety officer and serves on USPHS’s Rapid Deployment Force 5.
Will you tell us a little bit about your experiences in the military?
The Navy was an incredible service to belong to. Although it’s a cliché, I truly do not know where I would be without having served. I learned to be my own person and, unknowingly, I was preparing for my life outside of the military. I served as a Hospital Corpsman in the Navy, working in and outside of the continental United States, primarily in combat and emergency medicine. I like to say the Navy is where I grew up. It’s where I “got my sea legs” of life.
How long did you serve, and why did you choose to join the Navy?
I served in the U.S. Navy for eight years. I first became familiar with the Navy in high school through the Navy junior ROTC program. I enjoyed the comradery and was attracted to the discipline and order. I also loved how I felt in uniform. I had several opportunities to attend college but knew I wanted to join the Navy shortly after being exposed to the Navy junior ROTC program.
What was it like being a woman in the Navy?
Being a woman in the Navy was extremely empowering. I felt strong in my military environment. I was surrounded by people who helped me understand my strengths and capabilities, not only as a woman but as a uniformed service member in general.
What kinds of mental health challenges did you face when you were deployed, and how did you manage them?
Deployments can be extremely tough on military members, and I was no exception. I was young and hadn’t ever been in active combat settings, so I dealt with some anxiety. Along with many members of my unit, I also dealt with some post-deployment depression. I reached out to my unit’s therapist and my fellow sailors and senior officers both during and after the deployments for help. Post-deployment debriefings also helped.
How about when you were discharged from the military?
I was extremely excited and scared at the same time. I was excited to start a new chapter in life, but I was anxious and had no idea what the world outside of the Navy had in store for me. I felt like I was from another planet after re-joining the civilian world. I missed my Navy life and wanted to return every day for the first year after being discharged.
What steps did you take to cope after being discharged?
I quickly used skills I learned in the Navy to push through my fears. Whenever I would begin to slide into anxiety, I would remember my accomplishments as a Navy corpsman to help boost my confidence. I also enrolled in nursing school. I met new people and reconnected with family and friends I missed while I was enlisted. This became my therapy.
What do you do now to take care of your mental health?
I take time to relax, and I enjoy family time as often as possible. I love international travel, and I travel regularly. But one of the most important things I do to take care of my mental health is spend quality time alone. Brief periods of solitude are extremely therapeutic for me. It allows me to reset on my own terms and envision my next steps in life.
Do you have advice for other women veterans who may be facing mental health issues?
My biggest piece of advice is to take time to get to know yourself. Get to know what your triggers may be for anxiety, depression, or even loneliness. Also, be patient with yourself. Take everything one day at a time and know that many people, whether publicly or privately, experience mental health issues. You are not alone. Talk to someone and do not be ashamed to seek advice.
How can families best support women veterans who are living with a mental health issue?
Families of women veterans should simply be there when possible and be patient with what the vet is going through. Their loved one is going through life changes that include leaving an environment that has been her world for quite some time, and she may need to heal her mind and her body. This takes time. Seeking guidance from appropriate resources is extremely important. Vets are strong and will become stronger with proper support.