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Soldiering On

Women Suffer, Too

Another initiative making waves on the veteran front is Grace After Fire, a Fort Worth-based group that provides support for and helps women veterans who are returning from active duty re-engage in civilian life.

“Women are fighting alongside the men, which they’ve been doing a long, long time,” said Kim Olson, CEO/president of Grace and a retired Air Force colonel. “But now we’re trying to demand that a system designed around a male soldier change and adapt to a female soldier. The VA does a good job for men, but it wasn’t built around women.”

Founded in 2008, Grace uses peer-to-peer counseling among its other female-focused initiatives to give women an outlet to express their emotions and encourage self-renewal. The organization also acts as an advocate to influence policy on behalf of some 1.8 million women veterans and helps its clients gain access to programs outside its own service sphere.

Female veterans serve as counselors. “It’s important to have women vets talking to other women vets,” Olson said. “They can reach out to their battle buddies — their sisters.”

Grace client Mellanie “MJ” Sumrall agrees that peer-to-peer counseling is critical. “Counselors are great,” said Sumrall, a Crowley resident who was in the Army from 1996–2002. “But if it’s someone who hasn’t been in [the military], they don’t get it. There are things that happen that you’re not comfortable talking about with a civilian. They just don’t understand.”

Sumrall was never exposed to combat. She was almost deployed to Korea, but the fact that she had medical issues — she was on crutches because of being on her feet all day — sent her instead into an administration job. She was told if she stayed in military, she’d end up in a wheelchair. And her “babies needed a mama” who could take care of them, she said.

Her “wounds” stem from her re-entry into society — and the ensuing emotions that occur — as civilian life runs counter to military life. She wrestled with transitioning from the severely regimented life of a soldier — where life is mapped out turn-by-turn — to the more chaotic, freewheeling civilian existence. She sought the esprit de corps of fellow vets, who could empathize with those needs and the emptiness that stems from losing a built-in, always-on support system.

That men and women generally experience and process trauma differently is why Grace crafted a gender-specific model built around the female vet. “It talks about emotional intelligence and healthy relationships, grieving, the natural nurturing and the things we go through that are natural to our gender,” Olson said. “When women deploy, we shut off our emotional dial. Then when you come back after a year deployment, that emotional dial is supposed to kick back on right after you step off the plane? That doesn’t happen. You have to dial it back up.”

In terms of reintegration, Grace has done wonders for Sumrall, she says. “There are so few women compared to men in the military,” said Sumrall, a married mom of four who attends social events Grace sponsors to meet other women vets. “We’re a smaller group within an already small group. So having that connection to female soldiers who understand things that others won’t — it’s a piece of home.”

The military itself is home for Sumrall, she says, and losing that sense of companionship is another tough issue with which veterans have to contend. “People don’t get why you miss it. They baffle at why my husband re-enlists,” said Sumrall. Her husband, Dick, is in the National Guard. “Once you’re in the military, those are your brothers and sisters for life. And getting to meet [fellow vets] is like meeting members of your family. The military is a little piece of home that you feel like you’re always missing when you’re out.”
Above: Angela Williston, Dick Sumrall, holding Jo Sumrall, Mellanie “MJ” Sumrall, Edwin Sumrall and Zachariah Williston (standing). Mellanie turned to Grace After Fire to help her transition to civilian live from the severely regimented life of a soldier. Below: Being on her feet all day put her on crutches, and she was told if she stayed in the military, she would end up in a wheelchair.

Sumrall described a recent visit to San Antonio, during which she felt the gravity of her emotions. “I went to Fort Sam Houston and started to cry,” she said. “I didn’t realize how much of the military was in my heart.”

Her heart may have been heavy, but Sumrall and her soldier sisters are every bit as tough as their male counterparts, Olson says. “Women vets are just as resilient, just as brave, just as strong [as men],” Olson said. “They carry the weight of a lot more people than just themselves when they come back and assimilate into life.”

Kelly Kelly, another local vet who participates in Grace After Fire, concurs. She nods to the innate power of women to rally around and inspire each other. “It’s amazing because women are so strong,” she says. Just to be around Col. Olson and hear her speak and [see] the poise these women have — it’s awesome.”

Kelly, who served in the Army from 2001–2006 and then in the Air Force Reserve from 2006–2011, spotted a flyer for Grace at Texas Woman’s University in 2011 and attended a get-together soon after to convene with fellow comrades. “It’s always nice to compare stories and meet local area women who are so strong and [where] everybody helps everybody,” said Kelly, who is studying nutrition at TWU. “And when you get friendship and love and kindness like that — it’s a human emotion everyone needs.”

Besides providing an outpouring of support, Grace has aided Kelly in other ways, as well. “I was about to have a baby, and they helped me with a ton of stuff,” she said. “They gave us Christmas gifts, too.” Grace even helped Kelly obtain a college scholarship.

Kelly deeply craved the camaraderie of military peers, who have unique insight into what it feels like to be an outsider in a non-military environment. She’s way more at ease amongst her “brothers and sisters,” she says, and feels a genuine connection to all of them, whether they served together or are even in the same branch or not. Those “differences” are blurred when they’re out of uniform and back at home.

Support is critical, Olson says, because women are a familial linchpin. “We believe the woman is the nucleus of the family. If we get her well, she will go to great lengths to get her family well,” Olson said. “Women are a huge force multiplier as far as making families whole. On the converse, if you lose the woman, you’re probably going to lose the family.”

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