Tattooed scars of war

Author(s): Cherissa Jackson, “America’s Combat Nurse”; Air Force Veteran; Women Veteran advocate

The sounds of helicopters and alarms signaling that we were under attack haunt me to this day.  I completed two tours to Iraq and another tour to Afghanistan as a combat nurse, and every day I was uncertain if I would be a causality of war.  Working 5-6 twelve-hour shifts, seeing the multiple injuries, sleepless nights, and missing loved ones back home became the norm. After several months, I became numb to the everyday routine until one day, there was a mass causality signal indicating 5-10 wounded were incoming from an offsite location.  I rushed to get dressed, body armor on, M9 in holster, and heartbeat raising because mass causalities meant multiple injuries and maybe even fatalities.

Approaching the combat hospital, I noticed several stretchers and black body bags with doctors and nurses assessing each bag.  Unlike before when the soldiers were brought into the ER for assessment and triage, the entire parking lot was chaos with people and body bags.  Immediately, I threw my backpack off and asked what was needed and I how could I help.  Hearing that the bodies were from a plane crash nearby and we needed to assess each body was horrible.  I remember unzipping my first bag and inhaling the charred body, a smell I will never forget, blew me away.  Many nurses had left the bay because it was too much to handle.  Several doctors wept as they announced each person was indeed dead.  I will never forget that day because it was the day that I realized I would never be the same.  That day was my first mental tattoo of war: bright, bold colors, and perfect lines.  It would scar me for life and later become my journey of coping with Post Traumatic Stress (PTS).

As a female Veteran, and someone who is functional with my challenges of PTS, I’m often questioned or even interrogated about my signs and symptoms.  The stigma of PTS in the community pictures a Veteran appearing weak, hopeless, and ashamed.  Because of that context, I’m having to relive my experiences in order to convince friends and family of my diagnosis.  Unlike most Veterans, I’m deterred to erase that sigma particularly in the Women Veteran community. Women Veterans, our “Sheroes,” have served and fought in every conflict since the American Revolution, and today, over 300,000 women serve in uniform, and 2 million women are Veterans.  We are the fastest growing demographic group in the military and Veteran communities.  As mothers, daughters, wives, and inspiring citizens, Women Veterans always answer the call to serve without hesitation, but why are our experiences not discussed similarly as with Male Veterans?  Women Veterans experiences include great accomplishments like being commanders, generals, congresswomen, etc., but these accolades came with a hidden Scarlet Letter “S” on our chest for “sadness, shame, and suicide.”  As Women Veterans, we are expected to be strong and hide our pains so that we aren’t viewed as weak and unfit to be soldiers.  Where is the respect and compassion from the community, other Veterans, and government officials when topics arise about Women Veterans? Are we not worthy? As AMVETS’s Chief Medical Executive of the HEAL program, I beg to differ and is determined to change that perspective.

Being told on multiple occasions that I don’t look like a survivor of PTS always rocked me to the core.  The ignorance and insensitivity behind that statement fostered me to advocate for Women Veterans.  However, it’s been an uphill battle because Women Veterans require resources unlike those provided to Male Veterans to be successful while serving and transitioning back into the community.  To do so, Women Veterans must identify themselves as soldiers; 87% of the 2 million female Veterans don’t use VA Healthcare Services.  83% of Women Veterans receive their healthcare from a non-VA facility or practice.  Society has not changed its ideas on how a soldier should look and as a result, Women Veterans have adopted the same idea that a Veteran is a male who has served in combat. They don’t value or accept that being in uniform while protecting and serving our country proudly is the true definition of a Veteran.  I’m perplexed and stunned at how Women Veterans chose to water down or down play their roles in our military history.  Women Veterans are unstoppable but while we struggle with our identity, our communities don’t recognize our accomplishments and we fade away with little hope for change.  We are forced to dim our light of success so that our male colleagues can shine and receive all the praise.

Our stories of valor, honor, and courage aren’t seen or understood.  Our stories of PTS, Military Sexual Trauma (MST), domestic violence, homelessness, infertility, etc., aren’t statistically evaluated to determine how these linked factors can, and will, determine the success of a female veteran.  In many stories I hear, there is a result factor: PTS was a result of MST or domestic violence.  Capturing that relationship will help us understand the needs of the female Veteran and incorporate purposeful and impactful solutions that will save their lives.  Our skills are invaluable, but our stories remain untold. Women Veterans continue to face bias, harassment, and sexual assault while serving.  These women later struggle with PTS, depression, and suicide because they feel worthless and abandoned by the community that they fight to protect here and abroad on deployments.  Depression is the one of the top 3 diagnostic categories for Women Veterans at the VA.  Studies reveal that Women Veterans have 1.57-2.5 higher chances of developing PTS than Male Veterans.   Stars and Stripes recently released a survey that said 66% of women who serve have experienced sexual harassment.  Service Women’s Action Network reported that women veterans are 2.5 times more likely to commit suicide than civilian women.

I’m reminded of the nursery rhyme that is so symbolic of the female Veteran experience: “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream, merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily life is but a dream”.  If Women Veterans can dream and make those dreams come true, our significance in military history will forever be told.  They would no longer be afraid to share their stories, ask for help, use resources, or be overtaken with sadness and on the tight rope to suicide because merrily they will overcome and rebound.  Women Veterans will emerge though the obstacles of PTS, MST, domestic violence, and suicide more courageous and become role models for other Women Veterans to follow. All we need is permission to be mothers, sisters, daughters, and wives as soldiers without scrutiny or ridicule.  We shouldn’t have to compete with our fellow Male Veterans but instead, work together, side by side, sharing and owning our experiences.  Our identity would be clear, our road to success would be easier, and our struggles of PTS, MST, domestic violence, and suicide would be respected and valued. Our tattooed scars of wars would be a beautiful canvas of our identity and self-worth never to be questioned again.

Cherissa Jackson served 23 years of active duty military service with 10 of those years as an U.S. Air Force Nurse. She is a veteran of both Operation Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, having served a total of 3 combat deployments where she honed her expertise as a battlefield clinician. 

 Following her honorable service, Jackson became an ambassador and advocate for persons with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). She was inducted into the SHEROES United Organization  Hall of Fame and traveled to Rome, Italy in November 2016 in order to collaborate with the Vatican, the Nation of Congo, and the city of Amatrice, Italy to help advance a global discussion on eliminating stigmas associated with PTSD.  She has a non-profit that saves the lives of women from cervical cancer called “Project Give Hope” and has travelled internationally to Uganda in 2017, and 2018 and will be traveling overseas in 2020.

 Jackson is the author of “At Peace Not in Pieces,” a bestselling memoir that outlines her principles of coping with her own PTSD challenges as a combat veteran and nurse. She was also named one of “25 Individuals of Influence” in the June 2018 issue of PTSD magazine and recently joined the HillVets 100 list of top influencers of 2018. Cherissa also won the “Daily Record Top 100 Maryland Women for 2016” for her efforts with PTSD. Recently Cherissa was awarded the first “Passion Award” at the AVB 2019 (American Veterans Ball). She is 2020’s recipient of “The Vettys” (Veterans Award) for excellence in Mental Health. She also won the “Star Nurses Nightingale Award” amongst 600 nominees in September 2020.  The award was a collaboration between Washington Post and American Nurses Association. 

 She joined AMVETS on February 1, 2019 as Chief Medical Executive and leads the organization’s HEAL Program, which strives to confront the risk factors that lead to crisis and veteran suicide. She uses her experience to lead the organization’s effort to address issues related to women veterans and champion legislation that improves access to quality healthcare.  She has conducted several Focus groups around women veterans and LGBT+ communities.  She and her team launched a Suicide Prevention Training in September 2019 during Suicide Prevention Month.  She also created a one of a kind, Women Journey Map that details the experiences of women veterans from induction to separation/retirement to help the VA and legislators understand what programs are needed to combat the increased rate of suicide in women veterans. Her inaugural “ROSE Brunch” (Respect our Sheroes Experiences) was a huge success as she created an event for Women Veterans during Veterans Day weekend to inspire, motivate and encourage women veterans to know that “it’s ok to not be ok”. She launched a talk show on MSI (Military Sisterhood Initiative) platform called “Who’s at the Table” to provide a place for Women Veterans to discuss their triumphs and share their stories with the world.

 Jackson is a mother of twin daughters and holds a Bachelor’s of Science in Nursing degree from the Medical University of South Carolina.

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