Imagine having to say goodbye to your family and friends with the possibility of never seeing them again and then leave your entire life behind to go across the world and risk your own life to help your country – as part of your everyday job.
For woman veteran Mea Williams, this was her reality when she served in the U.S. Navy and was deployed the day after the September 11 attacks to work onboard an Amphibious Assault Ship off of the coast of Iraq.
“I was part of the Operation Iraqi Freedom,” Williams said. “Going through it, I really didn’t think of it as war, I just thought of it as my job.”
After serving overseas for an extended tour of seven months, Williams returned home to continue working for the Navy onboard the USS Bataan and later worked at the Navy Public Affairs Center in Norfolk, VA. After six years of honorable service in the Navy, Williams started as a program specialist and later became a center director with KinderCare.
Grace After Fire
“The adjustment period for me was very hard as far as leadership, because it seemed to me that being in management in the military was far different than being in management as a civilian,” Williams recalled.
After five years, Williams decided to move on and is now working as a female veteran that does peer-to-peer counseling with woman veterans in the Harris county area through an organization called Grace After Fire.
“I always knew that I wanted to use my military service and experience to influence and inspire other women,” Williams said. “It was just time for me to go. This great opportunity with Grace After Fire opened up for me.”
Having only been with Grace After Fire for more than a month, Williams has mainly taken training sessions with other women vets and is looking forward to the phone call part of her job.
“Women really just want someone to listen,” she said. “Grace After Fire supplies the resources that women need to better themselves and heal emotional wounds.”
Such wounds include the hardships any soldier faces, like grief and loss, emotional and psychological effects and family ties.
“If the woman is a mother, it would be very difficult going from a fulltime sailor, airmen or marine to a full time mother or balancing the two,” Williams said.
Williams is one of the few outreach coordinators Grace After Fire has across the state, including Dallas and San Antonio. Aside from assisting women via phone, Williams works with one of Grace After Fire’s newest programs, Table Talk™: Color Me Camo that serves as a peer support system that focuses on gender-specific aspects through a structured positive interaction with trained facilitators and fellow peers.
“The tabletop program is a 14-week program that covers seven different sessions that range from grief and loss to emotional intelligence to self-esteem,” Williams explained. “We help the women veterans dissect her and look internally, to see if there is anything that hasn’t been dealt with or healed.”
Research shows peer-to-peer interaction is one of the most effective solutions to help the growing population of veterans, Williams said. With women making up 10 percent of military Veterans and 60 percent of them under the age of 30, it is expected that Texas will have the second largest population of women veterans by 2013.
“When you’re in the military, society expects you to be put together head to toe, whether you’re a man or a woman,” Williams said. “Society expects for the woman soldier to fight strong and be smart and be the same example as that of the male counterpart.”
Williams said she never felt she was treated unfairly per se when she served, but admitted she is not surprised when she hears of women who were sexually harassed or the like.
“I didn’t experience sexual harassment for myself while in the service but I know that it happens,” Williams said.
Williams said she is thankful for the non-profit’s efforts to guide women veterans to gain knowledge, insight and self-renewal because it opened her eyes to her own buried emotions and feelings since leaving the Navy.
“I never sought counseling. I never thought I needed it,” Williams admitted. “But now that I’ve been out for six years, the emotions that I suppressed for so long are now starting to come up to the surface to be dealt with.
Williams said she is eager to begin taking calls and help women veterans as a way for her to give back even more than she already has.
“I can’t think of any better thing to give back after that experience,” Williams said. “When you’re in the military as a man or a woman, you really learn self-control and discipline and honor and courage and commitment.
“It’s extremely gratifying when I wake up in the morning and I know I’m working for Grace After Fire and bringing my military service back full circle and helping those I come into contact with,” she said.
Williams said the time she spent serving in Iraq was difficult for many reasons, especially as a woman.
“When the AV8 Harriers came onto the flight deck, they would have the bombs that they were about to offload onto land,” Williams recalled. “So as a woman and a mother who gives life, I had to hold my emotions in as I watched bombs leave the flight deck and knowing that they may very well take someone else’s life.”
Despite this fact, Williams said woman or not, it doesn’t matter how much it hurts to see those planes fly off.
“It didn’t matter that I was a woman. It just mattered that I was wearing that Navy uniform and that I was a Navy sailor,” Williams said. “So the hardest part was having to separate me being a woman and having emotions and being a sailor in the U.S. Navy.”
Not enough recognition
Williams said she agrees America still does not do enough for veterans.
“I really think businesses and society as a whole needs to understand that these men and women who come back from war or serve for 20 years gave their life up for America to fight for our country,” Williams said. “I don’t think that there is any gift greater to give, I think it’s priceless really. I think maybe a greater percentage of benefits, more opportunities for a higher education or just more recognition would be nice.”