Jennifer Brown knew what she wanted when she decided to leave the U.S. Army after seven years: a college degree and a bodybuilding career. She made plans and executed them, with military discipline. But even for a motivated soldier, stepping out of uniform can be demoralizing.
“I don’t understand how to be a civilian,” Ms. Brown said. “I just don’t know how to sit and relax.”
The U.S. has about 1.8 million women veterans with more coming home all the time. More than one in ten veterans returning from post-September 11 conflicts are women. They must find their bearings not only as civilians but as workers, students, mothers and romantic partners in a world where womanhood is defined very differently than in the military.
Jennifer Brown was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in the Intervale section of the Bronx. Her father drives a taxi; her mother is a home health aide. The eldest of four, she graduated high school early and joined the Army in 2005, as a way, she said of escaping a downward spiral.
“I felt myself hitting that pit, that pit where you known when you fall down, you get pregnant, you get in drugs, and you’re pretty much a loser in the rest of your life. I felt that in my path.”
She chose another path. In the Army, Jennifer rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant. She completed intelligence missions in South America and Afghanistan. She earned an Associate’s Degree online while she was deployed. She fell in love. But after seven years, she wanted to start a life outside the military while her husband remains enlisted.
After returning from Afghanistan, Jennifer first moved to a military base in Kentucky then returned home to her family, who now lives in public housing a few subway stops from her childhood neighborhood. She dreams of opening a gym and wellness center for women. Her military experience convinced her that women hold the keys to social change, even in societies with few freedoms for women.
“Everywhere you go around the world, like whenever they go out and help out the women, the whole area just gets much better,” she said. “Because through women, that’s how children get educated, you know what I mean? If you have a strong woman in the family, your family is going to prosper.”
Jennifer currently works stocking shelves at four New York area Home Depot stores. She is preparing to compete at the Metropolitan Women’s Physique competition at the Tribeca Theater in Manhattan on April 6, 2013.
Jennifer was accepted as a sophomore at St. John's University. She begins classes in January for bachelor’s degree that will qualify her to teach high school biology. She will be the first in her family to earn a college degree.
In spite of these accomplishments, time sometimes hangs heavy for a woman used to the fullness of a military schedule. “I thought having a job would give me control,” she said. Then there are the endless choices in the civilian world, the second-guessing and uncertainty. At times, Jennifer still asks herself if leaving the Army was the right move.
Slowly, she said, she is learning to make her way. Amid the noise and chaos of New York City, she finds lessons that were absent in the Army. She said, “I’m learning little by little how to be patient.”
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