In 1986, at the age of 18, Cassaundra StJohn joined the Air Force. She had grown up in a military family. Her father was a Master Sergeant in the Army, and she respected the values and commitment to service. The structure and team philosophy motivated her to join that community.
As she began her career, StJohn discovered firsthand that there were some things about the military that she didn’t like. Foremost was the way in which women enlistees were treated. Secondary, was the institutional response to the behavior, “That’s the way it is.” Degrading conduct was not limited to verbal insults. It included coerced sexual relations with senior male staff—or else. While at technical school, StJohn outlined the circumstances as, “It was a given that you could be forced into sex with a senior officer or your career would be compromised, and possibly ruined.”
StJohn summed up the psychology behind the action with the clear statement, “It’s a conquering of each person—a way of putting a woman in her place to achieve a mode of submission.” Her female colleagues “knew the instructors who could hurt their careers, and acquiesced as a matter of survival.”
It happened to StJohn more than once.
Defining the situation for me, StJohn related how “her idealism had been crushed.” She pinpointed the nitty-gritty of what fighting back could do. It was made clear to her that any actions on her part would endanger the status of her hard-earned security clearance, potentially leave her with a dishonorable discharge, or have her tagged with a “personality disorder.” Most distressing for StJohn was the inference that her father’s career could be “tarnished.” StJohn noted, “I understood from childhood how the military works. The swipe of a pen can affect if you can get a job or buy a house.”
StJohn departed active service at 22 because she realized that “things were not going to change” and that she was no longer able to be “a good soldier and keep my mouth shut.” She mentioned the comment written on her security clearance report which labeled her with the contentious description: “Non-Conformist.” As StJohn emphasized, “It wasn’t a compliment.” She chose to finish out the rest of her obligation by serving in the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserves. StJohn clarified the difference between active and reserve duty in the 1980s saying, “It means that you don’t have to face the harassment everyday, and the military has no control over your life.”
Her father—unaware of the extent of her disillusionment or the malfeasance she had been subjected to—gave her the advice, “Keep your nose down and don’t rock the boat.”
After StJohn left active service, she had no luck finding a job with just a high school diploma. She tried college, but felt a disconnect with the students. At 26, she was ready to get back on the educational track, with the goal of achieving an MBA by the age of 30. By this time, she had two children and was working two jobs while attending classes. As she noted dryly, “Scrubbing toilets at a Texaco gas station can be very motivating.” She used funds from the GI Bill and fees from donating blood to pay the tab. By her third decade, she had caught up with her peers and began a career in advertising, marketing, and entrepreneurship.
StJohn’s “aha” moment didn’t come until March 2011, when she attended an event for women veteran entrepreneurs. None of the teachers had any experience with military life. Realizing that they were many resources for men who had served—but not for women—StJohn had an epiphany. She asked herself, “Why aren’t I doing this? Why am I waiting for the VA? I can speak a language that women vets understand.” In retrospect she observed, “It just hit me all at once.”
That was the beginning of F7 Group, which StJohn describes “as an organization that is looking through the windshield—rather than the rear view mirror.” The approach is grounded in seven basic tools of support: friends and family, freedom, foundation, function, focus, flexibility, and fundamentals.
StJohn is very clear that emotional issues around military service must be resolved before women can move forward. “We acknowledge the impact of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Military Sexual Trauma (MST), and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). With women driving trucks, being in special operations or combat zones, there is a high risk for potential hostile engagement. As StJohn underscored, the current military policy maintains there are no women in “direct hand-to-hand combat.” This has created a bureaucratic mess for those women suffering from the ramifications of TBI. F7 is actively supporting a change in legislation.
For the women it works with, F7 is vigorously trying to fill in the gaps around healthcare, employment, education and housing. Supporting and partnering with other groups that concentrate on these specific concerns, F7 functions as an information clearinghouse. StJohn sees plenty of room at the table for everyone’s work, advocating pulling up extra chairs rather than feeling competitive about existing seats.
StJohn has moved beyond her original concept of providing business boot camps for building entrepreneurial skills to the concept of personal retreats. She envisions “building a train from the uniform to the place that women vets want to be.” She expanded the profile of potential attendees from vets only, to others in the military family—such as wives and mothers. Welcoming those who served in Vietnam, along with younger women who were deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the F7 premise is to eliminate the labels. StJohn outlined her approach as, “You take off your rank, your service, your era, and your role, and connect with the fact that the military is the common thread that binds us.”
The first retreat was held in October. The goal for 2012 is to convene quarterly, with three meetings in national locations and one in Texas. StJohn qualifies the gatherings as “looking at the heart side.” She speaks about “putting the past where it belongs,” while answering questions and redefining the self with other women who “have walked the walk.”
The need is there. StJohn quoted stats that illustrate female veterans are four times as likely to be homeless as other women. The total number of homeless women veterans in California, Texas, and Florida exceeds the amount of homeless female vets in the entire country. On the reason for elevated rates of homelessness among female vets, StJohn responded, “They’re proud, they don’t want handouts, and many are suffering with emotional problems and PTSD.” She also referenced figures showing that 70 percent of women vets experience some level of PTSD, and 38 percent of women vets “report” incidents of MST.
“Women vets get back here, and there’s no support,” StJohn said. She spoke about two women in the F7 program who had gone for services at the Dallas VA Medical Center. They described their encounters there as “nightmare experiences.” StJohn has scheduled the next F7 “Lone Star” retreat for April 2012, in Texas. Her goal is to serve 200 applicants.
“I know these women,” StJohn said. “I don’t want them to have to take twenty years to get to the other side. I want to help other women in the military family to go to the next step—with less pain and in less time than I did.”
Photos courtesy of F7 Group