WOMEN'S WORK

After 20 Years Of Military Service, This Single Mom Is Giving Back To Female Vets

Because “no one comes back the same way they went in.”
Lt. Col. Jessica Chapman
Lt. Col. Jessica Chapman

Raising children while active in the military can provide a single mother with unique challenges.

For Jessica Chapman, mother of two 13-year-old twin daughters, every day of service to her country was an honor. But as she reflects on her time spent throughout her two-decade Air Force career and four deployments abroad, she says that it got harder and harder to leave them behind.

“It is an enormous sacrifice,” Chapman, 43, says, adding that her final deployment, a year-long installation to a post in Afghanistan, was especially hard for her daughters. “They were 7 years old when I left and 8 when I got back and [I missed] everything in between,” she says.

Chapman in the cockpit of a C-5 Galaxy aircraft in October 2018.
Chapman in the cockpit of a C-5 Galaxy aircraft in October 2018.

When deployed, “you have to kind of turn your home life off a little bit [and] put a wall up, because there’s a lot of emptiness there without your kids.” It was only with her mother’s help that Chapman was able to continue her service abroad. “She became ‘me’ for a year and I was just incredibly grateful for her.”

Even with the advent of technology that eliminated the sometimes hours-long waits for too-short phone calls home, having access to video calls home almost made being apart from her children more painful. “Quite honestly, when you’re on the screen, when you’re missing your kids or anybody, sometimes seeing them every day, it’s actually harder,” Chapman says. “And so, because you can’t be there and it’s going to be 11-and-a-half months before you can be...It would just break my heart, obviously, every time I’d see them on the screen.”

While apart from her daughters, she says, she had to accept that whether you’re there or not, “life goes on. It keeps moving, and that’s one of the things that really gets to you emotionally. Yes, you feel very guilty.”

Chapman and her daughters Makayla (left) and Ashley (right), along with the family dog, Lucky, on vacation to Savannah, Ga. in November 2018.
Chapman and her daughters Makayla (left) and Ashley (right), along with the family dog, Lucky, on vacation to Savannah, Ga. in November 2018.

Chapman credits a loving community on the military bases for being her “village” and helping her cope with her separation from her family during an intense deployment. “There were these great bonds and friendships, and we just helped each other out.”

But when her 20-year milestone arrived, with another potential deployment on the horizon, Chapman made good on a family pact: that they take a vote on whether or not she would stay active. Unanimously, the family decided it was time for her to retire.

But if anyone expected Chapman to pass the baton of service altogether — the Army Bronze Star recipient had other plans.

Finding A New Path To Serve

“It’s harder than just taking off your uniform,” Chapman says, explaining that there are reintegration issues such as finding a career or transitioning into civilian society. As a member of the military, “you understood your role. You had a very important — but also a very specific — role in military life, and so now you are finding that new path” in society.

Chapman has found new ways to foster the same special bonds of support that she received from her “village” community while on deployment. She parlays her experience into her recent work as the president of Genesis Joy House, a shelter for homeless female veterans in Warner Robins, Georgia.

The thing about transitioning into civilian life, Chapman explains, is that “no one comes back the same way they went in.”

Not Everyone Makes “A Smooth Transition”

According to Genesis Joy House, women veterans are one of the fastest growing segments of the homeless population in the U.S., and the risk of a woman veteran becoming homeless is four times greater than a male counterpart.

Chapman sees this occurring in Warner Robins. “In many cases, it is shocking to me the amount of homeless female veterans that we have, even in this area [of Georgia]. We’ve pulled them out of the woods. We’ve pulled them off the streets, living in their cars. It’s been very eye-opening for me,” she says. “I connect really closely with it because it’s obvious that they have combat stress, PTSD, or MST [military sexual trauma]... And I know that that can be really hard to come back from.”

Through the programs, female veterans build 90 and 120-day transitional plans, learn job-placement skills and receive counseling, temporary shelter and food.

“The whole process is rewarding, but I’m most glad when we pull them out of those really bad situations. It’s incredible to be able to improve their life in eight hours’ time,” she says, adding that watching a woman’s first hours in the shelter ― as they immediately receive clean clothes, a shower, a hot meal, a warm bed and, most importantly, a vision for their future ― as being the most impactful experience.

Chapman helping with a holiday toy drop-off volunteer event at Genesis Joy House in December 2019.
Chapman helping with a holiday toy drop-off volunteer event at Genesis Joy House in December 2019.

Passing Along A “Heart Of Service”

Chapman is adamant about instilling her spirit of service in her daughters. “I [bring my daughters] out on our ‘work days.’ I think it’s so important.” The Genesis Joy House team works together on living quarters renovations and to build a food garden where the women can grow vegetables.

“We’ve been spending every Saturday, probably for the last three months, hands-on...renovating these living spaces,” Chapman says. And when her daughters complain, she responds: “You can handle it. Swing a hammer.’”

When others come to her for advice on ways to support family, friends and co-worker veterans in their own communities, Chapman offers that the best actions might be easier than one would think.

“Just be supportive and be there. Make sure they know you’re available, but also give them their space, otherwise they tend to feel very pressured,” Chapman says. “If you really try to engage, but not push, most of them will be receptive to it.”

“Veterans just want to feel empowered again. They just want to understand that their destiny is in their hands,” Chapman says. “I’m just honored to be a part of something so big.”

Chapman with daughters Makayla (left) and Ashley (right) on vacation in Orlando, Florida in February 2019.
Chapman with daughters Makayla (left) and Ashley (right) on vacation in Orlando, Florida in February 2019.

From USAA:

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