MELISSA BLOCK, host: What happens when a young woman spends her formative years in the military - tracking terrorists, facing the threat of rocket attacks, and holding her ground in a male-dominated environment? Re-integrating to civilian life can be a challenge. The skills that make an excellent member of the military don't always match expectations of a young civilian woman.
Julie Rose of member station WFAE in Charlotte, North Carolina, has the story of one female veteran.
JULIE ROSE: Victoria Blumenberg was a champion cheerleader in high school.
VICTORIA BLUMENBERG: I was on dance teams. I did all of that girlie stuff.
ROSE: But while her girlfriends went off to college, joined sororities and kept up with fashion, Victoria joined the Air Force Reserves and did four deployments. At 18, she was an intelligence analyst giving top-secret briefings to air crews in Kuwait, and later Baghdad.
BLUMENBERG: And now I don't paint my nails everyday and I don't do my hair everyday. I never wear makeup unless I'm going out. I'm just not really into that.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ROSE: If she sounds a little weary, that's because it can be exhausting being a young woman in the civilian world after coming of age in the military. She loved the no-fuss life in uniform and thought she'd always be an intelligence analyst, even after her last deployment in 2007 which entailed six straight months of 12-hour days and the constant threat of rocket attack.
BLUMENBERG: I would do every bit and more if I had been given the opportunity. I would probably have been back there three more times by now.
ROSE: After that last deployment in Baghdad, she fell into anxiety, depression and alcoholism. She thought it might be PTSD, but was afraid to get a diagnosis for fear she would lose her top secret clearance. In late 2008, she was arrested for driving while intoxicated and worried that could end her military intelligence career. She was 23 years old and felt her life was falling apart.
BLUMENBERG: I went home and overdosed on Ambien. I woke up two days later in the hospital and was sent to basically a psychiatric facility for a few weeks after that.
ROSE: She says the Air Force Reserves couldn't promise she'd stay in intelligence, so she took an honorable discharge and began building her civilian identity from scratch, enrolling at UNC Charlotte to study geography and political science. But the anxiety - one symptom of her PTSD - is always there.
BLUMENBERG: I always try to take different routes to and from school. And I try to avoid going to the same place at the same time every day and establishing patterns. But there are certain places that you can't get around. Like, there's no real escape if you see a car coming at you head on or something.
ROSE: Some days she can't bring herself to leave the house. She's learning to cope, even managing a 3.9 GPA. But her social life is a different story.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Did you fly out on a 130 or a 17?
ROSE: Her friends are mostly other male veterans on campus. Tonight they're at a bar nearby.
BLUMENBERG: C-130s were my plane.
ROSE: She's wearing make-up this night - purple shadow on her giant cat eyes. She's pretty, bubbly and animated when she's at ease. But dating veterans hasn't worked out. She says the instant military connection tends to mask the fact they often have little else in common. And at 25, civilian guys can't seem to handle her military baggage and PTSD. At least that's been the case until she met Pete.
PETE KNESKI: Like, you know, she's tough but she looks really pretty. So it's like, that's a cool combination.
ROSE: Pete Kneski met Victoria online and they've been dating for a few months. She's his first veteran girlfriend.
KNESKI: Vickie is maybe a little bit different being a veteran, you know with PTSD and all that kind of thing. She has so much emotional swing going on in her own self, she has to be very careful with kind of what she allows herself to feel.
ROSE: Victoria wonders about her ability to be a good girlfriend, wife or even mother someday, because she never really learned how to be a nurturer.
BLUMENBERG: You know, the military never nurtured me when I was feeling weak or hurt or whatever have you. I had to learn to deal with it on my own and come back to my job the next day and perform my duties to make sure that everyone lived.
ROSE: Victoria says she sometimes feels like that was a lifetime ago. And now she's starting over - career, relationship and whatever comes next.
For NPR News, I'm Julie Rose in Charlotte.
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