The six probably never expected to find themselves at New York Fashion Week, let alone with the cameras and champagne-sipping crowds pointed in their direction. But this was no ordinary show. Known as "Fatigues to Fabulous" (or F2F), it was the first New York catwalk, and the first national campaign, to spotlight the specific issues facing America's 1.8 million female veterans.
Jennifer Crane took the stage first, a full arm angel tattoo exposed under a Charlotte Ronson floral dress. Crane enlisted in the Army at 17, and had her first day of basic training on 9/11. After Crane returned from several years in Afghanistan, she ended up homeless, which led to drug abuse, prostitution and self-mutilation. She wanted to end her life.
After she was arrested, Crane received care from Give an Hour, a nonprofit that provides free mental health services to returning troops, and a co-organizeer of F2F. It saved her life, she said. Now she's a spokeswoman for the group, and studying for a degree in nursing.
"We all have scars, some of them aren't visible," she said, in a sentiment echoed by all the veterans who spoke.
'Some Very Rough Moments'
Meredith Perry-Smith was a flight surgeon in the U.S. Navy. Wearing a black sequinned Donna Karan, she told the crowd about a night in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, when her squadron experienced a mid-air collision, and four of her friends died. As the on-hand medic, Perry-Smith had to identify the bodies, but they were so unrecognizable because of their injuries that she couldn't even manage one.
There were two survivors however, and one of them was flown to Germany with a 40 percent chance of survival. When he woke up in the intensive care unit, he looked at Perry-Smith and told her that he loved her. They're now husband and wife, and Perry-Smith is completing a residency in general surgery.
Ann Marie Faison stepped forward, a striking figure in a royal blue Carmen Marc Valvo dress. Faison served in the Army for over 20 years, from Desert Shield and Desert Storm in Kuwait to Operation Iraqi Freedom in Al-Asad, Iraq. There, she was raped by another soldier. "It took a lot out of my life," she said.
Faison retired in 2009 as a Wounded Warrior. She's currently married with three children, and completing a second degree -- in social work.
"They cleaned up their stories," Phyllis Greenberger of the Society for Women's Health Research (SWHR), the other co-organizer of F2F, told AOL Jobs. "There were some very rough moments."
The idea for F2F began a few years back, when the SWHR began to study gender differences in the experience of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. "No one was talking about women and PTSD back then," explained Greenberger. "No one was talking about PTSD period.".
SWHR found significant differences, and so continued its research into the uncharted medical territory of female veteran care. Soon, female soldiers and veterans were contacting SWHR looking for information and help. Greenberg realized that these were issues and human beings that needed attention, and the best way to get attention is with some sex appeal and a snappy name: Fatigues to Fabulous was born.
Greenberger hopes the campaign can raise money for various organizations supporting female veterans, like Give an Hour. To help with the cause, DKNYC designed a commemorative watch, sold exclusively through HSN. Ten dollars of each purchase will go to fund F2F.
All the organizers and participants repeated the point that life as a female soldier and female veteran has unique challenges.
"There's sexual trauma, harassment, rape," said Serena Hayden, in a perfectly tailored red Calvin Klein gown. "The military culture makes it difficult to come forward."
In February, 17 veterans and service members filed a lawsuit against the Pentagon, claiming it had ignored an epidemic of rape in the military. Almost a quarter of the women serving in combat areas say they have been sexually assaulted by fellow soldiers, reports In These Times.
There is also the issue of pregnancy while deployed. Sarah Franson experienced firsthand the stigma and isolation of an unexpected pregnancy, while serving as a Naval Flight Officer..
Women are officially banned from combat roles, but as Greenberger wrote in an editorial, "the risks seem the same for women and men when an attack can come at any time, and when there is neither a 'front' nor a 'line.' "
"And there are so many perceptions that women just sit behind a desk, which is very much not true," continued Hayden, who joined the Army as a Public Affairs Specialist in 2003, served in Iraq for two years, and was awarded the Bronze Star.
"You internalize your service differently," she said. "You diminish it within yourself."
"You're not a 6-foot-1, square-jawed guy," Christina Dibble told AOL Jobs, explaining the invisibility that many returning female soldiers feel. A lot of women also shed their femininity while deployed, she said. Integrating back into civilian life means recovering that part of their identity.
"I didn't cry at all while I was in the sandbox," Dibble said. "But when we landed back at JFK and I saw the cosmetic counter, I cried." Dibble now manages the veteran and military spouse employment program at Sears and was, appropriately, wearing a figure-hugging black dress from the Sears' Kardashian Kollection.
Some women vets, however, don't struggle with their femininity.
"I'm not a girly girl," said Hayden, whose short haircut looks very Katie Holmes when paired with CK knockout dress. "And I'm so tired of the word fabulous," she smirked.
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