A non-profit focused on women veterans now offers makeovers to female soldiers exiting the Army.
One reality of having more women than ever serving in the military is more women are also going back to civilian life. The Pentagon has noticed they have a tougher time than men parlaying military experience into a private sector job, though top brass aren’t sure why that is.
Julie Lewit-Nirenberg, founder of Operation Reinvent, believes the problem could be partly that former soldiers might not fit the traditional image of women in the workplace. “It’s very important for our ladies to reconnect with their feminine side,” Nirenberg said. “Yes, the makeup might sound like [fluff]. It’s not.”
Lewit-Nirenberg has put on her un-boot camp at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and Fort Bragg, North Carolina. She hopes to offer the crash-course at any installation that will have her.
Of the 40 female soldiers who signed up for the two-day class at Fort Campbell, some arrived in fatigues and combat boots, their hair in the regulation bun. Others ditched the camouflage, put on some earrings and heels and clip-clopped their way inside a retreat center on the sprawling post.
“Hoops, studs? Pants, skirt? Hair up, hair down? There are just so many more options for females," said Harold Riggins, who leads the Fort Campbell office that helps soldiers find civilian jobs.
"I mean, we have one standard uniform, everybody kinda dresses alike. So as these young ladies are exiting the military, we want to give them every bit of knowledge that they need to succeed in the civilian workforce,” he said.
These women hold military jobs ranging from human resources management to air conditioner repair. Many of their skills easily translate outside the military. But the unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans remains several percentage points higher for women than men. “I don’t know what the reasons are,” Riggins said. “But with us not knowing — and there’s a gazillion reasons — we just want to give them information.”
Besides taking home that information, the women soldiers also go home with a new haircut and a designer outfit.
Denise Brant combs through racks of blouses and blazers, but stops on one a bit too revealing for her taste. “It looks kinda hot,” she said.
But after 20 years in the Army, Brant welcomes the style help. “It’s kind of awkward because I’ve been looking in my closet. I’ve got church clothes. But I don’t have any dress clothes. I’ve got uniforms. So I’m in the middle of a mess right here,” she said.
Still, what does it say that this kind of help is even being offered, sociologist Meredith Kleykamp wonders? She studies the transition of soldiers into civilians at the University of Maryland. “Women who serve in the military may not be your typical girly-girl,” she said, adding “many of them are. Some aren’t.”
Kleykamp, a former military spouse herself, said it shouldn’t matter. “We need to have a society that says ‘You like to not wear make-up, have short hair, and you’re direct and blunt? That’s ok. You don’t have to act a different way or become a different person,’” Kleykamp said.
Intelligence analyst Kirsten McKenney said her three years in the Army have made her different from her high school friends, and not in bad ways. She said she believes her former classmates seem more complacent than her sisters-in-arms.
That is a point these makeover workshops also drive home — don’t forget everything you learned in the Army. “I think a lot of women in the military have a lot stronger personalities,” McKenney said. “A lot of the women I work with are more goal-oriented, go-getters.”
McKenney’s goal is to become fluent in Arabic and move to the Middle East. She hopes to work with non-profits that empower women, though it’s unlikely makeovers will be on the agenda.