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Written by Jamie Reno
Female veterans face the same post-war mental health issues as male soldiers, but also have to deal with gender discrimination and sexual assault.
In the rough-and-ready, male-dominated world of military pilots, Olivia Chavez held her ground.
Chavez was 5 feet tall and 140 pounds when she became one of the first women, and first Latinas, to fly an CH-47D Chinook helicopter in a combat situation.
In fact, for more than two decades, in three separate branches of the military, Chavez was a pioneer and served among her mostly male counterparts with great distinction and pride.
But her unbreakable loyalty to the military almost destroyed her.
Chavez told Healthline that she was sexually assaulted multiple times by several different men while on active duty.
“The idea that we as women endure so much to fight for our country saddens me,” said Chavez.
She developed a thick skin and learned to live with every unwanted sexual advance, grope, and comment.
“I developed a wall thicker than the walls of the USS Tunny in order to go on with my days,” she said. “I stood my ground. I developed a vocabulary that would astonish Chesty Puller in order to show my strength. I drank as hard as the guys to show how strong I was and that I could hang.”
Little did she know the strategy she developed to protect herself would cause great personal trauma.
“Unfortunately, I do feel shame that a former commanding officer encouraged and convinced me not to press charges against a sergeant first class for groping me and discussing what he thought my sexual preferences were,” said Chavez.
She said she also had a command sergeant major kiss her on the mouth upon leaving her commissioning party, and had an executive officer who wanted to discuss her progress in flight school over beer and pizza in his hotel room.
“Our leaders are the ones entrusted to keep us safe, not create unhealthy environments,” said Chavez.
The decorated aviator says that berating and belittling female service members is still commonplace in the military.
Chavez had a mentor in the Marine Corps who would tell her regularly not to let things get under her skin, to just excel in her work and her duties so no matter what was said or thought of her, the results would speak for themselves.
“In 21 years of service, more often than not I found myself one of a few and sometimes the only female,” she said. “With every new duty station, it was like starting over, proving you are more than a target.”
Chavez is making the tough transition now from active duty to veteran. She’s dealing with mental and physical wounds. She has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as well as military sexual trauma (MST).
But she’s a survivor and an eternal optimist.
She’s working in a management position, is engaged to be married, and continues to help her fellow veterans — women and men — who are making that long and often arduous journey home.
“Women have been serving our country in one official capacity or another since World War II and even before,” she said. “But we are still the afterthought.”