This is what a veteran looks like: Female vets still struggle for visibility — even as we get closer to adding women to the draft

A sexist note left on a female Navy veteran's dashboard sparks open discussion about overlooked women who serve

Published June 17, 2016 2:58PM (EDT)

 (Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)
(Reuters/Shannon Stapleton)

In exactly the same way that we should no longer still feel the need to refer to female college students as "co-eds" or identify any story that has women in it as a "chick" thing, you'd think by this point in history we wouldn't have to explain that being a veteran does not have mean being a man. But here we go anyway!

North Carolina's Rebecca Landis Hayes is here to educate you. Earlier this week, Hayes, whose Facebook profile picture depicts her smiling and in her Navy uniform, posted a photo of a note left on her car in the parking lot of the Coddle Creek Harris Teeter food market. By way of explanation, she said that she'd used the veteran parking spot because "I had been in and out of my car several times already this afternoon, and I was only going to be a minute." Oh and also because she's actually a military veteran. Yet the note authoritatively chided her, "This parking is for veterans only, lady. Learn to read & have some respect."

In her Facebook reply to the anonymous note writer, she said, " I’m sorry… I’m sorry that you can’t see my eight years of service in the United Sates Navy. I’m sorry that your narrow misogynistic world view can’t conceive of the fact that there are female Veterans. I’m sorry that I have to explain myself to people like you. Mostly, I’m sorry that we didn’t get a chance to have this conversation face to face, and that you didn’t have the integrity and intestinal fortitude to identify yourself, qualities the military emphasizes. Which leads to one question, I served, did you?"

The note writer's apparent knee-jerk assumption of what a veteran must look like has familiar echoes with last year's viral tweet from Tayyib M. Rashid, when he shared his an image of his armed forces identification badge and the message, "Hey @realDonaldTrump, I'm an American Muslim and I already carry a special ID badge. Where's yours?"

Hayes' post has since been shared nearly 12,000 times and counting, and in a followup message, she says, "I truly appreciate your kind words and support. I hope my experience will help remind people that there is no ONE Veteran type." And after her story appeared on NBC News Charlotte, it received an outpouring of similar tales. "I experienced something very similar at a Harris teeter," wrote one woman on WCNC's Facebook page. "Guy said 'You don't look like a veteran !!!' I said, 'You don't look like an idiot, but I guess you are, have a good day.'" Another woman shared that "My daughter was in the Navy and when she would get veterans mail addressed to her husband instead of her!" But perhaps the most concise reaction came from the woman who observed, "I served 25 years and I hear it also...'You don't look like a veteran.' So what does a vet look like? I'm supposed to look a gorilla or what? WOMEN are VETERANS!"

Earlier this week, the Senate voted to require women to register for Selective Service, beginning in 2018. Senator and chairman of the Armed Services Committee John McCain said, "The fact is, every single leader in this country, both men and women, members of the military leadership, believe that it’s fair since we opened up all aspects of the military to women that they would also be registering for Selective Services." The bill is not law yet. As NPR reports:

"The House, after considering a similar provision earlier this spring, ultimately passed an authorization bill that omitted it; the two branches of Congress now must resolve the differences between their bills. And the bill faces a veto threat from President Obama over other elements of the legislation, such as the prohibition on closing down the Guantanamo Bay military prison."

But maybe now, as a new generation grows up with the assumption that military service is a future possibility regardless of gender, the idea of what a service person looks like will finally expand.

The current challenges for women in the military are profound. They have faced an enduring legacy of harassment and sexual assault that has only in recent years even been acknowledged — and they consequently endure a different set of post service emotional and psychological issues that the VA has had to get up to speed on. So sure, in context, having some supermarket parking lot dummy make a blanket assumption about a female shopper ins't a big deal. But it is, thanks to Hayes, an opportunity. As she told WCNC this week, "Really one of the reasons I shared it is I hope it got back to them and they would realize their mistake and maybe learn something from it. Veterans come in all different shapes and sizes, colors, races, genders, and religious affiliations — and you can't necessarily stereotype what an American veteran looks like."

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Armed Forces Going Viral Military Draft Sexism U.s. Military Veterans Women In The Military