Because I Was a Woman Who Served, I Was Stigmatized and Stereotyped by a Stranger

My calendar stood wide open that Saturday as I drove around listening to the local country radio station. So when I heard an advertisement for a resource fair for veterans at my favorite local brewery—Service Brewing Company—I figured I’d give it a shot.

I served four years in the Operational Camouflage Pattern uniform and bun hair. I liked finding ways to improve my life after leaving active duty, and the fair sounded like a good opportunity, even though I already had a job.

After I arrived, I got one of the owner’s small-batch sour beers and wandered from booth to booth, asking each representative what they had to offer. I was met with the same question at every table: “Are you a veteran?”

Noelle Wiehe looks for ways to improve her life after leaving the military, and this veterans resource fair at her favorite brewery seemed like just the opportunity. Photo courtesy of Noelle Wiehe.

Noelle Wiehe looks for ways to improve her life after leaving the military, and this veterans resource fair at her favorite brewery seemed like just the opportunity. Photo courtesy of Noelle Wiehe.

I wondered whether everyone got the same question. Was I not veteran enough? Oh, well, I thought, and nodded my head and smiled.

Eventually, I stopped at a financial company’s table. A man and a woman sat on bar stools with pamphlets in front of them. I asked my usual: “What’s going on here?”

I listened to their spiel and left with a business card and a chance to win a gift card. I also had a newfound desire to get my finances in order and possibly even invest, especially when they told me their services were free to veterans.

A few days later, I got a text message that I’d won a gift card to Amazon. I just needed to meet the woman from the financial company somewhere downtown.

I headed to the tavern where we’d agreed to meet, excited to learn about the financial freedom the company could help me achieve. We made small talk at a booth, and then I asked what her company had to offer. In turn, she asked me what I did in the military.

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“Journalism,” I told her. “I served as a public affairs specialist. Journalism was always the plan.”

I wasn’t prepared for what she asked me next, or the turn the conversation was about to take.

“Were you ever sexually assaulted in the military?” she asked me.

Stop. Replay that line.

Where am I? I thought. I felt like I paused forever, my eyes darting around the table to the floor, to the ceiling, to my lap, to her eyes. My brain turned over a series of questions. Who is this woman again? What am I doing here? What is she meeting me for? What gave her this idea?

Noelle Wiehe says she had it fairly easy in the military—no horror stories, other than lousy leadership. But a stranger assumed otherwise. Photo courtesy of Noelle Wiehe.

Noelle Wiehe says she had it fairly easy in the military—no horror stories, other than lousy leadership. But a stranger assumed otherwise. Photo courtesy of Noelle Wiehe.

A million things ran through my head all at once. I thought maybe she had read too many headlines recently and generalized. I thought about my suicide watch for the friend I made in advanced individual training and wondered what she would say if she’d been cornered like this. I thought about the fact that I knew this woman had not served. I reminded myself we were in a tavern so I could collect my winning gift card and talk about financial freedom.

My mind flooded with more questions: Is this woman a lawyer? Is there an angle with money and sexual harassment?

Didn’t matter.

It felt like forever passed before I finally answered her, although it was probably only a second or two.

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“No,” I told her.

Time restarted. The world went on spinning. Sort of.

I couldn’t make eye contact with her.

What do I say now?

I wasn’t hiding something. I’d had it fairly easy in the military. No horror stories, except for poor leadership—strictly in the business sense. I hadn’t lived on base and I hadn’t experienced anything close to sexual assault. Had I insinuated? Given off a vibe? No way I could have. I don’t lie. I don’t tell people something happened in my career that didn’t.

Shit, she’s still trying to meet my eyes.

“I mean, I know people who have been,” I fumbled, as if I needed to justify myself. As if I needed to validate her question while knowing full well I didn’t own this trauma.

Surely she didn’t have this same conversation among coworkers. Or those who hadn’t worn the uniform.

My answer seemed to suffice. She opened her mouth and filled the silence that had begun to make me uncomfortable.

She apologized.

Perhaps my reaction disconnected me enough from the situation for her to change the topic. I suddenly welled with empathy for anyone who had reason to say yes. Not just a woman in the military. Any woman.

Chazz Gilbert, left, and Noelle Wiehe reunite at the U.S. Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Georgia, after completing advanced individual training at the U.S. Army’s Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Maryland. Photo courtesy of Chazz Gilbert.

Chazz Gilbert, left, and Noelle Wiehe reunite at the U.S. Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Georgia, after completing advanced individual training at the U.S. Army’s Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Maryland. Photo courtesy of Chazz Gilbert.

There is a time and a place for a question like this. For a conversation about this. There are those that women ought to be able to trust, to open up to about their trauma. But this wasn’t it. Not even close.

I knew women who would cry at this moment. How could anyone ask such a personal question in the middle of a conversation about finance? I wanted to leave. But then she’d probably think I had lied. That I had been sexually assaulted.

What would it matter to her? WHY WAS SHE ASKING?! I gathered myself, tried to reroute the conversation. But I’m writing about it because the truth is it bugged me.

I left that meeting with a $25 Amazon gift card. But I was so perturbed by her insensitivity about such a sensitive topic that I knew my finances could wait.

Still, I met her later the next week. But I wasn’t comfortable. Did she assume all women in the military were victims of sexual assault? What an awful assumption—that just because I served I must be a victim. And didn’t that take away from the women who had experienced this kind of life-altering trauma?

I knew I couldn’t work with her.

The conversation prompted a few rants with close friends who found the interaction equally uncomfortable. It also prompted a lot of personal reflection.

Veterans represent less than 10% of the adult population in the U.S. Eight-nine percent are men. And because I was a woman who served, I was stigmatized, stereotyped by a stranger. And even though I knew I was a minority—as an American service member and a woman—I was stunned. I’d attended a resource fair where the first question I got was whether or not I’d served. And then one of those vendors had assumed that I’d had the same experience as women at the center of some of the worst news stories I’d ever heard.

Noelle Wiehe always knew she wanted a career in journalism. She spent four years in the military as a public affairs specialist. Photo courtesy of Noelle Wiehe.

Noelle Wiehe always knew she wanted a career in journalism. She spent four years in the military as a public affairs specialist. Photo courtesy of Noelle Wiehe.

It wasn’t fair. None of it. I guess maybe you don’t know how generalizing someone can hurt so much until it’s happened to you.

I know this much. I would never ask someone such a personal question. And I don’t think anyone ought to. Unless they can help, and unless it’s a safe setting—but even then I’m not so sure.

Could this woman have helped? Didn’t matter. I wasn’t the person who needed help. But what if I was? My heart breaks for the person who does need help. Is this why they don’t speak up?

I’ve taken a lesson from this. Don’t ever assume. Don’t think you know something about someone because they served in the military.

Would you ask someone who served in Iraq or Afghanistan if they have post-traumatic stress disorder? You shouldn’t.

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Every person in this world is fighting a battle of their own. A private battle. Military veterans face unique battles, no doubt. But we aren’t all fighting the same battles, and it’s not safe or kind to assume we are.

Statistics exist for a reason. But we don’t all have the same story. There is something I believe we all have in common, though. Our service helped protect the freedoms all of us enjoy. That should include the freedom from judgment by those who know nothing about us.

Noelle Wiehe

Noelle Wiehe is an award-winning journalist from Cincinnati, Ohio. She worked as a civilian journalist covering several Army units, including the U.S. Army's Cadet Command and the 75th Ranger Regiment. She joined the military as a public affairs specialist and was attached to the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Georgia. She deployed in support of Operation Inherent Resolve to Kuwait. As a Military Veterans in Journalism fellow, she covered every branch of the military as well as the first responder community at Coffee or Die Magazine. She now resides in Lafayette, Louisiana, and serves as a media relations specialist for the military's healthcare system.

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