Meet Sandy Gessler
Army Veteran 1975-2012
WoVeN Peer Leader, Omaha, NE
Tell us about your military background.
I joined the Army as a senior in high school after a female recruiter came and spoke to the all the senior girls in 1975. My MOS was 64 Charlie (Transportation Operator), and I was in the motor pool most of my career. That was okay, because I gained the respect of the soldiers that I worked with. My military career spanned 4 decades, so I saw a lot of changes with regulations, behavior/values of soldiers, and the change of acceptance of women in the military. I separated from the Army in 1978 when my enlistment ended, then returned in 1980, enlisting in the North Dakota National Guard for a period of 4 years. In 1990 I was again called back to duty/deployment in the North Dakota National Guard during Operation Desert Storm, after which I was deactivated. I missed the comradery of the military, so I again re-enlisted in the Army Reserve in 1998. I made it through combat training at the age of 47, and prepared to deploy in March 2003. I was released from active duty in October 2003 as my six-month deployment period was up, and I went back to my Reserve Unit.
After my release, I struggled because I didn’t have a home or a job, and all I had was my vehicle and last military paycheck. I never told anyone of my situation, and I lived on the streets for 4-5 months until I put together rent and deposit from working two part-time jobs. There were no services in place to help a woman without children. I also suffered from PTSD due to military sexual trauma I experienced while serving in the military, and I finally sought treatment in 2005. This was the beginning of making positive changes in my life. Over the course of the next 3-4 years, I maintained my military career in the Army Reserves. I had a stroke in 2008 which put me at a risk of being discharged, but my unit carried me until 2012 so that I could collect my retirement. I was 56 years old when I retired. At that time I decided to return to college, completing my education and walking across the stage for diploma that I had thought of since 1977! Currently I represent Nebraska as an advocate for homeless veterans and by participating in community service pageants.
What was the most rewarding aspect of your service?
The most rewarding experience was when I drove for a chaplain. I would go on his calls with him, which varied from crisis calls, home welfare checks, death notifications, and marriage counseling. I learned so much about working with others and crisis intervention that guided me in most of my community service choices in the future. I have been a foster mom, crisis advocate for children and domestic violence, and the last 15 years I have worked with homeless veterans. This was healing for me, seeing others needing so much more than myself, which helped me heal.
What was one of the challenges you faced in your transition from military to civilian life?
Each time I left the service, one thing remained the same—that feeling of isolation, not fitting in with other women, and always being on the outside in social interactions. These feelings negatively affected any relationships I had. I felt lost. Without my military family, nothing was familiar to me as a citizen. I was always restless, which is why I kept going back to the military and re-enlisting. I have 5 honorable discharges!
What inspired you to become involved in WoVeN?
In March I was feeling restless and isolated, and wished there had been somewhere to go where others understood me. I am involved with American Legion, VFW, etc., but that is different … they all have their own agendas, and I wanted somewhere that I could share and network. So I bounced around the idea of starting a support/group of female veterans getting together once or twice a month. Then when I was looking for information online, I found WoVeN! I read everything about it and knew this is was similar to what I had planned. I believe in fate, it has saved my life many times. I also see WoVeN as saving my life, because from past behaviors I knew I would take the wrong path eventually. Within about 30-40 days things went from “just a thought” to attending the peer leader training! I am so excited to spread the word about WoVeN through my national advocacy work, where I am able to interact with women from all 50 states.
What advice do you have for women who are transitioning out of the military?
Stay involved, find a group or an organization like WoVeN, so that isolation does not become part of your life. “Isolation” is unseen, and slowly alters your life. It can take away things you once enjoyed and made you happy until you have no interest and depression sets in. Knowing that your time in the service is ending is exciting. Then the day comes, and you celebrate, reunite with family, relocate, begin a new job, etc. But when the hype is over, and you sit there wondering what is happening, you might feel lost. Connecting with others is an important part of transition.
What would you like to tell women who are thinking of joining WoVeN?
WoVeN is a lifeline back to familiar ground, a comfort zone, a future that you can grow with, be part of, and be with those who understand your issues.