When people think about the battles soldiers fight, they often envision faraway deserts obscured by dust storms and sand, rumbling explosions and staccato gunfire, physical injuries and sudden loss. Although Captain Rachelle Thomas certainly experienced all of that throughout her deployment with the U.S. Army from 2012 to 2013, she was surprised to confront one of her greatest battles at home, inside sterile office buildings in Missouri. Specifically, the internal and external battle of how women are perceived, and perceive themselves, in the military.
Working in human resources in the Army, Air Force and now the Department of Veterans Affairs in Philadelphia as a civilian, Thomas has actively fought to change the face of the armed services. She’s helmed initiatives to pivot away from the military’s stereotypical image of a male-dominated and male-led organization, confronting issues surrounding gender disparity and challenging ideologies that favor machismo over mental health.
“As a woman in the military, you have to work harder to prove your capabilities,” says Thomas. But creating an impenetrably thick skin can lead to ignoring internal needs that can only heal if they’re acknowledged and addressed. “I feel like we sometimes think we have to hide ourselves because we don’t want to show ourselves as weak.”
Thomas never thought she’d become a warrior for gender equality.
In fact, Thomas never imagined she would be a warrior, period.
Fighting In A War Zone
Although she looked up to her grandfathers’ and uncles’ service in the military, Thomas’ involvement with the armed forces began almost on a whim. Unsatisfied by her college major of exercise science with a concentration in athletic training, she began participating in early morning ROTC sessions to see if they would “fulfill that nagging that I had.” Two months later, Thomas says, “I kind of just walked into the recruiter’s office and was like, ‘Where’s the paperwork? Sign me up.’”
Her parents didn’t even know she was considering enlisting until her recruiting officer dialed Thomas’ home phone number, just before she signed up for two years of service… which would turn into four… which would turn into six.
“I never ever said the military was going to be a career,” Thomas says. And the fact that she was a woman in a largely male organization never crossed her mind when she signed up nor during her first years of service, even though she was one of only 12 women in her unit of 120 soldiers. Her brothers in arms were family, and the unit’s chief warrant officers (known around the barracks as the “godfathers”), she says, “never taught me that I was less because I was female.”
It wasn’t until she returned to the States, taking on a position as the training coordinator of all full-time staff at the Army’s Missouri headquarters, that colleagues began treating Thomas differently due to her gender.
Fighting On The Home Front
“When I came home, I realized that I have to work harder than every male that I’m working with,” she says. “And you know, when you come home from deployment, you’re jaded. And probably a little angry. And being introduced to gender bias when you’re jaded and angry isn’t the best scenario for someone — especially someone who, all they want to do is come and serve other members of the military.”
When Thomas asked female colleagues if they noticed women were being treated unequally, she’d often be met with a sympathetic nod or the assurance that she shouldn’t take it personally — that’s how it had been for the last 20 years.
A vocal advocate for women service members, Thomas found both junior and senior colleagues started confiding in her and asking for guidance. When male colleagues also began voicing their concerns about gender parity, Thomas decided to co-found a women’s mentorship council. “And it wasn’t just one woman,” she says. “It was 20 women that were like, ‘Enough is enough; we need to see change.’”
In two years, the committee helmed projects that introduced pumping stations into office buildings, so breastfeeding mothers wouldn’t have to silo themselves off in bathroom stalls. They also cultivated a change in policy that allowed female officers to wear dress pants to events after 5 p.m. rather than the skirts that were mandated by old rules. Thomas notes that the organization also pushed programming to help male officers as well, in areas of lifestyle, wellness and mental health.
Fighting For Future Soldiers
It wasn’t until Thomas accepted a teaching position at an Army officer candidate school that she realized her ability to mold people’s lives by teaching them about wellness.
With the unique position of being the school’s only female instructor, “I got to teach them from a different point of view they never got [to hear] about: how to be respectful of every gender, every race, every person in a holistic manner, and how to cultivate wellness in their troops,” she says. “That was really when I started to make the change and realize that teaching was that path that I needed to be on.”
Thomas also realized, however, that she had to begin cultivating wellness in herself and address some of the traumas she’d experienced abroad rather than push them aside.
“A lot of things happened on that deployment that I’ll never say I wish it didn’t happen because they made me who I am now, but I don’t wish any of it on anybody,” says Thomas, noting that even the public admission that she experienced trauma was something she wouldn’t have been able to do a year ago. “I was very proud. I refused to reach out for help, and I let things stew. [But I began] to realize that I’m not alone and realize that I do need to utilize the benefits or the services that are given to me because I served my country.”
Fighting For Herself
Finally allowing herself to treat the invisible wounds of war, she decided to put a hold on her service, move closer to her family in Pennsylvania, and explore life as a civilian.
“It has been a year of healing, it has been a year of dealing with grief, dealing with tragedy, but it has been a year of embracing the trauma that I refused to embrace because I wanted to hide behind my military service,” she says.
Thomas graduated with a master’s degree in education and a concentration in positive coaching from the University of Missouri in August, and she plans on getting her certification as a personal trainer next month. In addition to working at the Philadelphia VA, she will help coach women — particularly female soldiers — to incorporate wellness into their lives and overcome trauma.
“The military helped me grow as a person,” Thomas says. “I experienced some amazing things, I saw some amazing places, I met some amazing people that I would have never met, but ultimately, it gave me a mission to serve women through heart, integrity and wellness. And I will forever be grateful for that.”
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