The Intersectionality of being a female veteran, former military spouse, and mental health care

I am a female veteran, former military spouse, licensed professional counselor (LPC), nationally certified counselor (NCC), clinical provider (volunteer) for the Give an Hour organization, President of the Student Veteran Association of Walden University (SVA_WU), and a counselor educator-in-training (Counselor Education and Supervision doctoral student).

Throughout my life, I have had various experiences and traumatic obstacles that have helped shape me into the person that I am today, both personally and professionally.  I was born and raised in Birmingham, AL. After high school, I attended Auburn University. Like most college students finding their path, I quickly realized that my original major, Chemical Engineering, was no match for the Psychology Department.  Pyschology was a better fit, as I had always enjoyed interacting and learning about people. The semester before graduating Auburn University’s B.A. in Psychology undergraduate program (2005), I lost my mother to breast cancer.

I continued on, pursuing a Master’s of Education in Community Agency Counseling, after graduation. As I worked towards completing my internship requirement during the last semester of my master’s program, I found myself alone emotionally, physically, and mentally.  I held onto the grief of my mother’s passing for a long time and am not really sure how I made it so far towards my M.Ed. without her. During my undergraduate education I spoke with my mom frequently by phone and this support was missing during graduate school. Struggling with my emotional wellness, I turned to substances to help me cope with my grief.  I thought “Hey, it was only one semester and I would be done,” however, the substances took over my life. I was subsequently kicked out of the master’s program; including losing my job/internship at an Adult Day Center for severe and chronic mental illnesses.

Learning that my dad was having a difficult time coping with the loss of my mother as well, I hid my problems from him for two months out of fear of burdening and disappointing him.  I had taken extraneous student loans that were not needed to get by during those months.  Finally, I admitted to my dad that I was struggling, moved back home, and he helped me pay off some debt, but instructed me to find employment to pay for the school loans. Embarrassed, alone still, and disappointed in myself, I sought employment in the mental health field.

I planned that one day I would finish my master’s degree, and sought employment experience in the field.  After a lengthy search, I secured a position at a boy’s residential facility for behavioral and substance use problems.  I enjoyed this position as it allowed me to use my skills from my master’s program conducting group therapy.  After working for two months, I came in one day and found the administration and the clients were gone! The facilities budget was cut and they had relocated all of the clients to different facilities. Fortunately, another job that I had applied for previously contacted me for an interview.  This job, a Women’s Substance Abuse treatment facility, was a residential facility for women with substance abuse issues.  After several months with this employer, I realized I needed to make a change. I did not envision that working with individuals with substance abuse history as my professional goal, and the meager salary barely paid bills and student loans.

Someone suggested I consider joining the military and after some encouragement, I found myself standing in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air force offices seeking guidance, with a goal of becoming an Officer.  Boot camp with the Air Force was at least a year’s wait and Officer Candidacy Training (Navy) was an 8-month wait, but I was ready to make the change quickly. My impression of joining the Navy was that it was a way to travel, get away from some of my own “stuff”, and have new experiences so when they suggested an enlisted boot camp (with a potential path to officer once enlisted), I was convinced. I signed up that day to ship out April 1st, 2009, but thanks to a last minute opening I was able to join February 11, 2009.  I enlisted as an Aviation Structural Mechanic (AM), completely out of my realm of experience, but I was excited for this new journey.

Raised in the south, I learned to address authority with Sir and Ma’am; however, this is not how the military operates.  These pronouns are only used when speaking with officers and I had to quickly adjust to a new culture. Boot camp wasn’t comfortable, but I felt that it a means to end; becoming an Officer in the Navy.  After boot camp, I went to Pensacola, FL for A-school where I attempted to discuss becoming an officer but learned I could not pursue that goal until I reached my first command. So I waited. After four months of A-school, I relocated to Jacksonville, FL to join my first command; a P-3 command.  When I arrived I was a bit nervous, but hopeful. I checked in to the command and learned that they already knew more about me than I knew about the command.  I was a woman trying to do a “man’s” job, who had the degrees that could make me an officer, yet there I was enlisted.  My Chief and First Class Petty Officer (at the time) seemed interested in helping me achieve my goals but as is common in the military, the leadership changed due to various reasons, and I was back to square one.

Soon after arriving, I was sent to assist a supply command for a few months. I “belonged” to one command, but was stationed with another and this reduced my access to my command (and my ability to achieve my officer goals). I began to research becoming an officer on my own and uncovered that I needed letters of recommendations from higher ups to take the next steps. I felt hopeless to get them as I was still very new to the military, the base, the command, and did not really know many people except for those who lived in the barracks and were lower ranking.  My goal seemed a million miles away.

Months later, I recalled to my command and shop.  I was still considered new because I had not been working in the shop for long and I was uncomfortable allowing myself to let my guard down and open up.  Upon my return to my original duty station, I met a fellow service member, Steve, who was working in the shop and I began spend a lot of time with him. Preparing for deployment is an extremely stressful time in the P-3 community, and we were scheduled to leave soon.  On our first deployment, a 7 month tri-site deployment, Steve and I were assigned the same site.  During this deployment, Steve, myself and other service members took a four-day trip to Rome, which was amazing.  Deployments bring everyone a lot closer together than home cycle and I found myself enjoying the adventure, and thinking less about officer school.

By the time I was preparing to leave deployment, I had two years left in the military and had found Steve, the love of my life.  With another deployment coming up soon, and understanding the military culture, Steve and I chose to hide our relationship so we could deploy together and save money for our future.  I had earned the rank of E-4 and was the supervisor of our line shop by the time we left for our second deployment. Towards the end of the eight-month deployment, I found myself ready to transition to a new life in the civilian world. While my U.S. Navy experiences were full of ups and downs and in-betweens, I learned and experienced a lot, and became close to a variety of friends (more like family).  The most important thing I learned while serving, or at least in my shop, was that we were there for all Airframers, or Aviation Structural Mechanics, in the command just like they were family.  Another thing that I learned was that even when service members were experiencing life’s struggles at home or at work, they refused to seek mental health services for fear of stigma or being persecuted and retributions of being discharged. I knew that I wanted to help my newfound family and planned to go back to school for mental health.

I was Honorably Discharged in February 2013.  During the check-out process, the officers who I had to meet with asked about my next step plans and when they learned that I already had a bachelor’s degree, they actually tried to talk me back into staying in and going to Officer school! By this time, what I had thought was my dream goal of being a Naval Officer had transformed, and I was ready to just leave the service and marry the love of my life.  In fact, within days of my discharge, I married my husband and quickly went from active duty to military spouse and veteran.

My husband stayed in the same command on a year and half home cycle with another deployment following.  We both wanted a child so we worked towards this goal immediately as I did not want to have a child with him away on deployment, like some spouses’ experience. During this time, I also applied for a master’s program in counseling, and was able to get many, but not all, of my courses transferred and to an online accredited masters of science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling program.  Steve told me that he did not want me to work, but to focus on school, keep my grades up, and graduate.  Our plan was working and we had our beautiful daughter, Lilly who was almost six months old when Steve left for his nine-month deployment.

With Lilly being so young, I do not think she even realized that he was gone, but I definitely did.  Lilly starting crawling two days after my husband left and that was just the beginning of what it felt like to be a military spouse.  I was alone in Jacksonville, full-time master’s level student, new parent, with no family from either side nearby.  I discovered ways to communicate with Steve frequently through face-time, email, and text messaging.  The most challenging parts of being a military spouse was not having your partner-in-life with you all the time, watching your children grow without them, developing relationships with the children, and civilians not understanding my experience and trying to support but not truly understanding. Being a military spouse does not necessarily make you a civilian, as you have to be on the ready to transfer duty stations, jobs, etc., just like the active duty.  This is why I sought an online program, because I was afraid that we would have to move before I finished school.

Steve was Honorably Discharged in June 2015.  I knew the transitioning process for Steve was difficult, as for all military members, but I believed that I was going to be able to help him through it. I took that summer off of school to spend quality time with him and our little family and help him find civilian employment. I began practicum in August 2015. Lilly went to daycare, and Steve went through two auto mechanic jobs before he landed a job on base that he was seeking.

It was December 2015 and I was beginning my internship, the final step in my field experience requirement to graduate.  On December 18th, Lilly’s birthday, Steve got so sick that I made him go to the hospital, where he stayed until January 3rd, 2016. At this point, I had to make the decision to move him into hospice care because his liver and kidneys were failing.  So, here I am again, the last quarter of my master’s degree, and I am facing obstacles.

I lost Steve unexpectedly and suddenly on January 6th 2016 at 2:11 am.  I had not disclosed his illness and our struggles with to my internship site supervisor or my faculty supervisor, but when he passed away, I knew that I had to reach out for help.

My supervisors allowed some time for me to collect myself before returning back to providing counseling services, but I still found myself in complete shock.  I knew that Steve wanted to be cremated, but being a relatively young widow, I had no idea what all needed to be done to take care of affairs after a death.  My stepmother stayed with me for a week and half, before a military-connected friend came to stay with from Hawaii.  She actually took a week leave to come be with me.  Other military friends in the Jacksonville area were checking on me almost everyday, asking me if there was anything they could do for me, bringing me food, and simply coming to be with me.  I had never experienced such support and love in my life.  If it were not for my amazing military family, my supervisors, and Lilly’s daycare teacher, I am not sure if I would have made it through and graduated.

Throughout my whole master’s program, I researched articles on military-connected or related issues, such as PTSD veteran treatment, stigma associated with seeking help in the military, military transition issues and concerns, evidence-based treatments for military veterans, etc.  From my own experiences, my husband’s experiences, and my own passion about helping others, I felt that I was called to the mental health profession; however, it was from the experience of losing my husband that I discovered that I might be able to do more with a doctorate of philosophy in Counselor Education and Supervision.  The Ph.D. would allow me to have a further reach with my passions, conducting research, presenting at conferences, and advocating that military families, children, and veterans receive the most beneficial services necessary.

With this in mind, I decided to enroll in the doctoral program.  I felt that my experiences may be inspiring to someone one day and so I have consistently worked hard toward completing the Ph.D. program and giving back through volunteer service.

One day I came across Give an Hour™ and inquired about providing services, however, at that time I was not fully licensed so I could not participate as a clinical provider.  Once I obtained my Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) license, I went back to Give an Hour and began providing pro bono mental health services to military-connected individuals, which has been very fulfilling.  I have also been busy ensuring that I am staying on track with my personal and professional goals of entering the counselor education world that I was recently named as the Southern Association for Counselor Education and Supervision (SACES) Emerging Leader 2018-2020.  In addition, I have served as my institution’s Student Veteran Association executive board member since its inception, and recently appointed President.  I have helped create this organization and get it off the ground.  At this point, I am in the middle of my field experience (practicum and internship) and scheduled to begin my dissertation in February 2019.  I hope to bring more awareness to the difficulties and challenges associated with the military transition to being a student veteran as well as the transition process as a whole.  Being a part of Give an Hour seems like a small way that I can give back to those who acted as family to me when I was in need, both as active duty, military spouse, and veteran.

Thanks for giving me a little of your attention to share my story and I hope that you know that you too can overcome obstacles and achieve your dreams and aspirations, even when you do not feel it is possible.  I am a testament to this and I hope you are or become one too.  When someone asks me to describe who I am, it is hard to figure out what to begin with: Veteran or Counselor; Single Parent or Full-time Doctoral Student; Former Military Spouse or Counselor Educator.  What I do know is that all of these “titles” are parts of me and have brought me to where I am today and contributed to the person and professional that I am today and I would not change anything about it.

Paige Zeiger, M.S., LPC, NCC

 

Leave a Reply