Serve. Honor. Empower.
Genevieve Chase - Founder, Executive Director, American Women Veterans.
Fifteen years ago if you had told Genevieve Chase she'd be running a nonprofit devoted to helping women vets she would not have believed you. "I had never wanted to run a nonprofit, I didn't want to work with all women, I wasn’t interested in being a feminist," she says. "I'd always got along better with the boys and I just wanted to work with the guys."
But the universe had other plans. In 2006 Genevieve, an Army reservist, came home with a brain injury and post traumatic stress from her first deployment in Afghanistan. "I didn't realize that I had problems," she says. "I mean, I did, but I wasn't really facing it. I ended up hitting what I call rock bottom."
That bottom culminated in one particularly dark night. "I just wanted to stop the pain. I wanted to kill myself -- I sat in my apartment thinking about what I had that I could do it with," she says. "Thank god I didn't have a gun in the place."
What she wound up with instead was her computer. "I grabbed my laptop and just started writing," she says. " I wrote everything that was in my mind and at the end of it just kept writing 'breathe.' All I had to do was keep breathing. Writing saved me that night."
The next morning, Genevieve woke up determined to throw herself into veterans advocacy work. "I thought, 'If I feel that badly after one deployment, how are my fellow soldiers going to feel after their 2nd, 3rd, and 4th deployments? I had to do something to help them.” she says.
Vets supporting vets
She volunteered to work with a non-profit for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans that same day, and quickly became an effective spokesperson for the group. But there was something missing.
"I came to understand that women were being left out of the national conversations about PTSD and veterans issues," she says. "They would say 'women aren't in combat, so you don't have combat-related issues.' When we would go to lobby government officials, they treated me like I was a secretary for the non-profit, not a servicemember. They were not listening to me as much as the guys I was with, and some of the men I'd served with had been in combat less than I had."
Eventually she approached the non-profit's leadership about launching a women's initiative. "I said, 'look, women's issues are serious, we're the underdogs of the underdogs.' There are over 2 million women vets, and a lot of today's military women are serving in combat. People need to know that," Genevieve says. "They weren't interested and I felt patronized. I thought to myself, 'you know what? That's fine. I'll just go and start a club for girls." She was frustrated and disheartened, "because I believed in that organization's work and had put so much heart into volunteering for them. But they weren't hearing me." At the time, she said the words in frustration, but she had no idea that's exactly what she'd be doing.
Days later, she started a Facebook group for women veterans and it grew unexpectedly fast. A month later, she put out a call inviting female vets in New York to brunch. Along with her sister, Virginia Irwin, -- also a vet -- Genevieve met a dozen women vets that morning in December of 2008.
"After listening to them I remember looking at my sister and thinking we have to do this," she says.
The modest Facebook group continued to grow quickly, which eventually led to the formation of the nonprofit American Women Veterans Foundation, which Genevieve continues to run today. The organization has raised the profile of over 2.2 million U.S. women vets and successfully advocated for legislation that supports them and their families.
"It seems so small, but every time people would talk about vets they'd say 'he' and 'serviceman,' but now they use 'service member,'" Genevieve says. "It's not something we called people out on or forced initially, it occurred naturally by making sure women veterans' stories were told. We're constantly working with the media, and there are countless articles that have been written now."
Genevieve was part of the team that advocated to get appropriations for the VA funded every 2 years. "That was critical," Genevieve says. "It all came around during the time just before women vets were starting to be heard. We would need the VA to open women's clinics and hire more women's healthcare providers but if the budget was late (and it was, 19 out of 20 years), programs would be halted, and most of those new programs needed to be for women. So it was really important to extend that to two years." She also advocated for the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, and advised Congress on necessary changes to the Post 9/11 GI Bill.
And then of course there was the "combat-exclusion" policy. "Initially, we were calling for the Pentagon to review and update the policy to reflect the capacity with which women were already serving," Genevieve says. "But they ended up just getting rid of it altogether."
A second deployment
In the midst of all that good work, in 2012 Genevieve got called up to deploy again.
"I'd cashed out my retirement and savings to get the non-profit started and everything was finally going well with it. It seemed we would soon get funding and I couldn't understand why I was deploying just then," she says. "This organization was the reason I survived the explosion on deployment. It didn't make sense. I was pissed off at the universe."
Genevieve found comfort in an unlikely source: horses. She had the opportunity to attend a leadership retreat working with horses and while the other workshop participants were excited to bond with the horses, Genevieve says she just wanted to be left alone. "I'd studied leadership since I was in high school. I wanted to learn how not to lead. I wanted people to not depend on me. I walked into the ring, and the horse sort of walked up half way and kept the space between us, and she was so reverent, so respectful of what I wanted," she says. "Then I just wanted to hug her so I did. And then I just started crying. I hadn't cried in a long time, and everything came up."
Unfortunately, after the 2013 deployment, Genevieve came home to the same demons that had greeted her when she came home in 2006. She thought that having a purpose (AWV) to return to would help but she found that this time was very different. Even with all her contacts and resources, she tried to battle through the demons on her own. "In January I got a plane ticket for August for a 2-week, solo backpacking trip in the Tetons, and I wasn't going to come home from that," she says. "I gave myself 8 months to wrap things up so I didn't leave a huge mess behind with my personal affairs. After I made that plan I felt empowered, I finally knew what I was going to do with my life. I was disconnected from life and wanted to disconnect from people. I didn't care what happened anymore so every opportunity that came my way after that I was like 'sure why not?' "
Finding her way back
Those opportunities -- "more time with horses, a memoir-writing workshop, a 9-day silent meditation retreat, and a too-good-to-be-true job offer in Sun Valley, Idaho" -- pulled her out of the darkness.
"The outdoors saved me," Genevieve says. "Meditation, nature, and my spiritual studies saved me. They are what helped light the path for me to come home to myself. "
It was moving to Sun Valley, getting to experience a sense of community, and forging friendships with the strong women there that helped Genevieve re-think AWV, too, as a network of grass-roots community groups rather than just a DC advocacy organization. She also got to experience what it's like for many veterans across America who have limited access to the VA because of geography. "I couldn't see it before, I was so busy running around and being pulled in so many directions that I never really understood what I needed -- I thought I would never find that camaraderie we have in the military among civilians. I also didn't understand what it was like to be in a more rural area with no access to services. Our VA hospital with specialized women's services is almost a 3-hour drive away," she says. "But it IS possible to build those close bonds in our communities and women veterans will work together to support each other, like getting a group of girls in a car, driving to our VA appointments and making a fun outing of it."
Genevieve says helping other vets has always been something of a lifeline for her, too, and it's an experience she hopes she can create for other women vets. By next year she plans to have a national network of AWV chapters, and a memoir out about her experiences on her deployments, the return home, surviving suicidal ideation, and building AWV. We are endlessly inspired by the work she's done, not just personally, but to support thousands of other vets.
Thank you, Genevieve. For all that you do.