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Why Judge My Book By My Cover?

Michelle Racicot explains how time in the military shapes her involvement with women veterans.

Michelle RacicotMichelle Racicot is being honored as a Champion of Change for her efforts as a woman veteran.

I was a U.S. Army Nurse Corps officer and trauma nurse. I loved and valued the times I was able to care for seriously wounded soldiers, and remember vividly the lives my team and I saved in Afghanistan. I also conducted presence patrols in and around the city of Ghazni, Afghanistan. Situated on a plateau in the central region of Afghanistan, Ghazni has a population of about 140,000 people and a long history of military invasions.

On one patrol, I was the figure of intrigue. A small tribe of local school girls approached me and giggled as I patrolled the area. Their eyes ranged in color from deep blue to light green and seemed large, hidden behind their head scarfs. They were fascinated by my appearance. I was female. My brown hair was tucked and braided under my kevlar helmet. I wore boots and had two weapons. Although I was able to smile at them briefly, I knew that my job was to help my fellow soldiers and scan for potential threats while patrolling the province.

With the interpreter at my side, the girls followed us for hours asking questions such as what my patch meant, had I gone to school, for how long, was I married, did I have children? I was probably an odd spectacle in their life. Yet I hoped with every answer I gave, that they too would be encouraged to go to college, become women leaders, and maybe even be nurses.

When I left the Army and transitioned to my new life as a veteran, I took those experiences and promised myself that I would continue to pursue my personal tradition of service in my community. I became a board member, then vice chair, of Cuidando los Ninos ( CLNkids is a non-profit dedicated to address the needs of homeless families and ending childhood homelessness in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I work with legislators and local community members to educate them on homelessness and its far reaching effects in the community to include health and educational disparities, the rise of violence and PTSD, and how to work together as a community to end homelessness.

In addition, I am currently the vice executive director of the national organization American Women Veterans. The core mission of American Women Veterans is advocacy on behalf of military women, veterans and their families. Through speaking engagements and interviews with various groups, I explain the role of military women, as well as advocating for veteran issues such as PTSD and women in combat on a national and state level.

I enjoy the mentorship that comes with working with this organization. Through this advocacy work, I am able to connect with other service women, including amazing women like Genevieve Chase, our executive director. Genevieve is full of thoughtful ideas, challenges, and goals, such as how to build our board of directors or how to become more involved with advocacy at various leadership conferences around the nation. These suggestions sometimes overwhelm me and at other times inspire me to accomplish more, such as when I helped with the New York City Veterans Day parade.

In November of 2012, I helped coordinate American Women Veterans participation in the New York City Veterans Day parade. I gathered over twenty women veterans from various cities across the country. Throughout the day we marched, passed out fliers, stickers, and mementos, and were greeted along the streets of New York by other women veterans lost in the crowd of smiling faces, searching for a glimpse of recognition that they too served in the military side-by-side with our brothers at arms.

Often women veterans go unrecognized in the general public. While male veterans often wear hats proclaiming their service, women have no badge or insignia to signify their service, but instead work to find a balance between career and home life, while finding a new identity as a veteran and civilian. At times their transition can be lonely.

Most women are not recognized as serving in the military, let alone serving in combat. This can also cause delays in treatment when going to the Veterans Administration. I once experienced the frustration of overhearing an older male at the VA hospital while waiting for a dental exam. He said, “look at this young girl, probably here for her free teeth cleaning after doing her four years.” I was angry initially: who was this man to judge me? I am a veteran just like him, having served in multiple deployments. Why judge my book by my cover?

During the Veterans Day Parade, I was able to chat with Vickie, a fellow American Women Veterans member and United States Navy Veteran. Vickie is very involved in her community and is one of the first women I ever met at American Women Veterans. Whenever I see her, she calls me “little one,” like an older sister would. She continues to volunteer in and around NYC and at the VA in Bay Bridge. She works in counseling and understands, as I do, the challenges women veterans encounter. She wears a US NAVY ball cap to events we attend together and I can tell that, in her own way, she tells the world “I am a veteran.” She continues to remind me why I work so hard to advocate for change.

If Genevieve, Vickie, and I do not speak out for women veterans, I sometimes wonder who will. They, as well as other mentors in my life, serve as my personal motivation to keep working and striving, and to be that voice and advocate for change. All in a day’s work for this veteran.

Michelle Racicot is a Family Nurse Practitioner at an Urgent Care Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico.