The path of women in combat has not always been clear cut or transparent, especially for women embedded in the Special Operations community. Like others, Christine Conley quietly served in combat long before such roles were officially open to women. Similar to many of her Brothers and Sisters in Arms, Conley’s story is one of struggle. But she counts herself lucky to have survived that experience by learning to turn struggle into strength.
CHRISTINE CONLEY’S PATH TO SERVICE
September 11th happened when Conley was 27 years old. She was working full-time as a lighting technician in the music business and often lived on the road. Conley loved the work but was beginning to feel the effects of living a rock and roll lifestyle. She finished a three-month stint on the road, came home, and went straight to a recruiting office.
JOINING THE NAVY
Conley already knew she wanted to be a Hospital Corpsman in the Navy. But in the aftermath of September 11th, they were not accepting female Corpsmen. Not wanting to wait, she chose Master at Arms. “You know recruiters—they never tell you the whole truth… I thought it was going to be dogs and bombs… and I bought it hook, line and sinker. I thought, this is going to be amazing! Then several months later when I was shivering on a gate in the middle of the night, I was like no—this is not what they told me,” she says with a laugh.
HER WORK AS A MASTER AT ARMS
But Conley found meaning in her work as a Master at Arms. She began her Navy career at what was then Submarine Base Bangor, where she learned to work in investigations and fell in love with it. Conley continued with investigative work in Bahrain and later on the USS Carl S. Vinson, the only ship she was assigned to during her service. After the Vinson, Conley transferred to the School House at Security Forces in Virginia, working in various billets, for most of the rest of her career.
As an Individual Augmentee, Conley made her first combat deployment to Iraq where she was attached to SEAL Team Five. “I did interpreter management—I was the liaison for our Iraqi interpreters there as well as doing some physical security.” Just as her group was winding down in Iraq, a new request for forces came in. She came back to the States for 10 days and immediately deployed again, this time to Afghanistan with SEAL Team 10.
STRIVING FOR MORE
In Tarin Kowt, Uruzgan Province, Conley was first assigned as personal security for an Air Force Major who was the women’s nurse practitioner. But it left her with a lot of down time, and she wanted to do more. “I wanted to get out [there], I didn’t feel like I was doing a lot. In my spare time I was over with the flight surgical team folks, but I really wanted to get out further.”
“I was only supposed to be going out with the Nurse Practitioner, doing site surveys and personal protection for her.” But Conley let them know from the beginning that she wanted to stay busy. “I left my daughter behind and I’m not here to just twiddle my thumbs. So if you’ve got something, I’m game. And thank God the Major gave her permission. She said, yeah, I don’t need her. So sure, go ahead.”
So Conley got her wish. She ended up at Firebase Cobra (now Tinsley) working with a small team of Green Berets. “There I was able to be much more active doing Joint Forces things with the Australian Army and Afghan National Army. Being there was probably the highlight of my career.”
GENDER BIAS IN COMBAT
But getting to that remote environment meant first getting past others who insisted she didn’t belong. In Tarin Kowt, a Chief had told her she needed to know her place as a woman and obviously hadn’t been mentored properly. “He told me I didn’t understand how it was out there and you can’t just go out there.” At the time, she was in charge of a team of 10 who had been to Iraq together and were now here in Afghanistan. “So you’re gonna send my guys out, but I have more training and more experience than they do and I have to stay here because there aren’t any showers?” She took such criticisms in stride and pushed forward anyway.
FITTING IN WITH NAVY SEALS AND GREEN BERETS
As a woman working in the SpecOps community, Conley worked hard to prove herself and never asked for special treatment. She felt it important to show respect for the group—not just to the members, but for their customs, traditions and everything they go through to become Special Forces.
When Conley went out with a small operational team, conditions were remote and incredibly austere. She blended in as much as possible when it came to the day to day work environment. “Whether it be hygiene or whatever—I don’t want any special treatment. I think that attitude did help me a lot. But I definitely had to prove myself.” In her opinion, it’s an approach that better serves SpecOps teams as a whole, and the women who embed with those teams.
She talks about being surprised by small, yet important things that can throw you off. Beyond maybe not showering for two weeks—for the safety of the team, can you take a crap in front of whoever has Night Vision Goggles on for night watch? How do you handle those situations and not be seen as a liability? “It’s not glamorous, it’s gross, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s something you don’t necessarily think about that can cause issues out in the field on a mission.”
“Just like any other profession, they need the right person for the right job. And also going in there with a willingness to understand why they do what they do.”
COMING TO TERMS WITH DEATH
TRIGGER WARNING: The following sections mention combat situations, combat-related injuries, PTSD, TBI, and attempted suicide.
Understandably, there is not much that Conley can share about the work she’s done in Special Operations. But she remembers very clearly the first time she took fire in combat.
She was on a joint mission and the other team had been wounded. Her gunner had gone to higher ground to call a medivac, so she took over in the gunner’s turret and immediately faced some harsh realities. “I started taking incoming fire and I was like, wait a minute! I’m a nice person! I was helping your kids in the clinic, why are you shooting at me? I had been that ignorant, I guess.
It just struck me as ridiculous and funny, like oh my gosh, I could die out here. I was laughing my ass off at the gunner’s turret, and coming to terms with the fact that I could die in that situation. It does something to you, and it can be detrimental, but it can also be an opportunity to grow. Because once I got over that fear of death in that way, it opened up so many other things.”
GOD AND COUNTRY
“You go over and you’re thinking God and country and everything else, but when it comes down to it, it’s about the people next to you. I’ve never had a relationship like that, that was that close, where you are literally relying on others and you know they have your back.”
STRUGGLE AFTER COMBAT
COMBAT RELATED INJURIES
Despite her 100% disability rating, Conley is modest about the injuries that eventually sent her Stateside for good, saying only that she “got banged up a little bit.”
“I started having surgeries soon after I got back home. They wanted to medivac me out when I was still there, but I was really close to the end of my tour, and I’d fought so hard to get [further] out of Tarin Kowt, that I was like, no. Let me finish this. I loved what I was doing.”
Once back at the School House, she had countless orthopedic surgeries, averaging 1-2 per year. She oscillated between teaching Antiterrorism Officer and other similar courses to having surgeries and taking convalescent leave. After it became clear she would be doing this for quite some time, she began the med board process that would ultimately force her separation from the Navy.
FROM THE SCHOOL HOUSE TO WALTER REED
Working at the School House was a high-risk environment, one that became increasingly difficult for Conley to teach in. So the School got her orders to the hospital until she was medically retired in early 2015.
While Conley knew she had PTSD, her symptoms didn’t quite fit all the check marks. During her med board physical, they discovered that she sustained multiple TBI’s (Traumatic Brain Injury) in Afghanistan. “I was lucky enough to get up to NICOE at Walter Reed—the National Intrepid Center of Excellence—and I think at that time there weren’t even double digits for female patients yet. I was very, very lucky to have gotten in there before I got out. And it did help immensely. At least knowing that I have a brain injury. Sometimes just having answers helps a lot.”
ACCUSATIONS OF DISHONESTY
In her search for answers, Conley saw many providers during her last few years in the Navy. At one point between surgeries, she met with the head neurosurgeon at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth. She told him her symptoms and the incident that caused them, which involved a rocket propelled grenade. He looked her straight in the eye and said, “I’ve been over there—I was a flight surgeon in Kandahar, and I know we don’t send women out to do those kinds of things. So what really happened?”
Having a leading neurosurgeon immediately discredit her experience of war left her speechless. “I had been fighting to get good care, and just to be so completely written off because of my sex… I was like, my God, if he’s doing this to me and I actually have paperwork where I can say this is what happened, this where it happened, this is who it happened with—what’s happening to other people?”
It would be two and a half years before Conley was diagnosed with TBI. “There are a lot of symptoms that overlap between PTSD and TBI, so the main focus was on treating the PTSD. It was upsetting because I had been on the fast track. I made E-6 in five years. Especially with those deployments, I was totally set up for making Chief (E-7). And I went from being a relatively intelligent individual to getting lost, you know? Like a puppy dog in a cardboard box.”
BATTLING THE DARKNESS ALONE
As is the case for many, life after combat was a real struggle for Conley. “I was very angry. Transition was very difficult. I struggled, I flailed a lot.” She started drinking heavily, something that began as a simple desire for sleep. She also battled the pain of leaving her daughter with family over multiple deployments, and carried that pain alone. “I thought I was holding it together for her, but I’d put her to bed and that’s when I would start drinking. I’d google for hours, what is wrong with me? I just needed to find someone else who had lived this experience also.”
Being separated from the guys in her unit only added to her feelings of isolation. “It was difficult when I came back because I wanted that connection again. These were guys that I formed a brotherhood with. After they were back, the harsh reality was that a lot of their wives, girlfriends, whatever—didn’t like the idea of a woman being in those environments.” Conley found herself stuck between wanting to maintain connections with the people who best understood what she was going through, and not wanting to make life difficult for them at home. Ultimately, she lost an important support network during a critical period of reintegration.
THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL
Conley was in an accelerated downward spiral by late 2011. She battled intense nightmares and functioned on very little sleep. It got so bad that she would be driving the backroads to work one minute, then suddenly find herself 30 minutes into North Carolina with no idea where the time had gone.
“The nightmares became more vivid, and I woke up one morning just drenched in sweat. It was a very vivid, very realistic nightmare yet again—just reliving some stuff—and I just broke. Lack of sleep, pain, being separated from all the people that I had gone through this stuff with—that was probably the hardest.”
ASKING FOR HELP
At that point Conley walked into a Fleet and Family Service Center and asked for help. “I started crying and just completely broke. I didn’t even really make any sense, I just said, I need help, please help me.”
The choice she made that day pulled her back from a place of desperation and very well may have saved her life. “There was one point where I had been thinking about suicide for some time. There were symptoms of TBI, but I didn’t know I had a TBI at the time. I felt stupid. I would get lost, I would forget, I would lose my words. I’d go into a grocery store and just be completely overwhelmed at the sounds and the sights and everything else going on. I would freeze, and I’d turn around and leave. And I just—I wanted to end it.”
You can hear the pain in her voice as she speaks about one of the darkest moments in her life. “I had it all figured out. And then I realized I could not do that to my daughter. I’d already left her for so long when I was deployed. And her father wasn’t in her life since we divorced when she was two, so I’m all she has.” Then her tone shifts from pain to gratitude. “Thank God for those moments of clarity, and for her, really. Because God knows what might have happened.”
SEPARATION AND TRANSITION
CHOOSING INVISIBILITY AS A COMBAT VETERAN
After Conley separated from the Navy, she felt the intense gaze of others who didn’t understand what their curiosity cost her. It was like being under a microscope. At this point she was still having surgeries. People would see her in a wheelchair and ask a cascade of questions that left her feeling very uncomfortable. Eventually she stopped talking about being a Veteran, and if people made assumptions, she let them go. “I wouldn’t do anything to correct them because it was just easier. And people don’t always need to know everything. I definitely downplayed and was almost secretive about what I did. Because [I got] everything from disbelief to that awful question: did you kill anybody? And it was like, you know, I’ve got enough crap I’ve gotta deal with.”
Residual symptoms of the TBI left her with other challenges, as well. “A lot of times people can’t tell that anything is wrong, and I’m grateful for it. But I was ashamed. Because when I’m in a wheelchair, it’s like, ok, she can’t walk. When I’m searching for words or mixing them all, it’s like what is wrong with her. And that was embarrassing to me. So I downplayed the Veteran part a lot.”
LEARNING TO SPEAK HER STORY AS A COMBAT VETERAN
Now Conley is working on being more open. She credits her old Nurse Practitioner (who is now a good friend) with being a voice of encouragement. “As women, we struggle with this stuff because so few of us tell our stories. The more we normalize our experiences by telling our stories, the better it’s gonna be for us now, but also for all of our sisters that come behind us.”
That perspective made her wonder if she was being selfish. “If you don’t speak it, how can others benefit? All those nights when I didn’t know what was wrong with me, googling late at night while drinking a fifth of Jack just to fall asleep—I was looking for those stories. I wanted to realize that hey, I’m not the only one. This isn’t completely abnormal, and it’s going to be ok.”
“And I didn’t find any women’s stories. If I would have, how much would it have helped? Maybe it would have saved me years of floundering if I had chosen to speak my story.”
HEALING AND LEARNING TO HELP OTHERS
THE HEALING POWER OF HELPING OTHER VETERANS
When Conley left the military, she was not ready to accept the idea that she was broken for good. She didn’t want sympathy, but she did want to get better and knew there was more out there. She found it very therapeutic to volunteer.
“I was looking at a lot of complementary and alternative modalities for PTSD, so I did everything. I volunteered at equestrian events, farm, agriculture—if it was out there and they would try it on Veterans, I was all up in it.” She volunteered with several organizations and kept working on her own personal growth in the process.
A STRONG PUSH IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
At one point, a retired EOD friend and fellow NICOE patient made an enthusiastic recommendation that she read the book Struggle Well. She blew her friend off for more than a year, but he never let up, even giving her a link where she could listen while driving. “Finally I was like, fine, fine, fine! I’ll listen to the damn book!”
Conley was blown away by how much of herself she saw in Struggle Well. It led her to the Boulder Crest Foundation, started by the book’s authors Ken Falke and Josh Goldberg. It is an organization that uses the science of Posttraumatic Growth to heal, train and advocate for combat veterans, first responders and their families who have experienced trauma. The backbone of their programming is Warrior PATHH, an 18-month training that helps veterans and first responders transform times of deep struggle into profound strength and growth.
THE WOMEN’S WARRIOR PATHH PROGRAM
After years of trying a wide range of programs through the military, the VA, and private practice, Conley had the opportunity to join a Warrior PATHH program for women. It was illuminating and filled with many ‘aha’ moments for her. She spoke of how many military women have some history of abuse, and often join for a sense of stability, structure or security only to experience fresh trauma of some sort in the military. “Then we wonder what happened? But all the signs have been there. So what do we do now?”
Conley used to be skeptical of women-only groups, feeling she had little in common with the other women there. But the Women’s Warrior PATHH program changed her perspective. She found the details of individual experience didn’t matter, partly because disclosure is built on speaking your own story. She was also grateful to see the wisdom of separating men and women in the program. In a non-mixed environment, “Any temptation to posture or be distracted is completely removed.”
HOW BOULDER CREST IS DIFFERENT
After many years of struggling—both before and after leaving the military—Conley wishes she had found Warrior PATHH earlier. “I can’t even begin to scratch the surface, but one thing I appreciate is that you don’t get treated as if you are broken. There’s none of that, I’m so sorry for what happened to you. No pity, any of that. It’s just a very realistic, yes, this happened to you. We hear about surviving, but how often do we get to hear I’m thriving. That this is possible. But if nobody shows you, how are you supposed to know?”
She also appreciates that Boulder Crest recognizes that one-week programs don’t work, instead giving PATHH students 18 months together to learn and cement strategies they can carry through life. Even now, she still has regular Zoom calls with her PATHH guide and the seven other women from her program.
LEARNING TO BE IMPERFECTLY PERFECT
A common struggle Conley found within her team was the difficulty in learning to love oneself. She noticed that where men often advocate for themselves more readily, women don’t. “We tend to downplay our experiences, our feelings, all of it. To hear everyone talk about forgiving themselves, or being able to say I am imperfectly perfect—and to realize that whatever we’ve experienced and don’t feel like we can share with someone else—we’re not that different after all.”
“If we’re not allowing ourselves to feel that support from our Sisters because we’re worried about… what are people going to think of me, or I can’t possibly talk about this, or I’m so ashamed of this—it’s happened to someone at some point before. And we’re stronger together.”
About her PATHH experience, Conley also spoke of unburdening herself from things she’d been carrying for way too long. “It was just so freeing to be supported and heard and understood. And I’m not knocking shrinks and psychologists. I almost became one! They definitely have an important role in this. But who better to be that supportive environment than your Brothers and Sisters who have gone through similar things? People who can say, we get it. We understand. We’ve been there. We’ve done the work—we’re doing the work.”
A LAST-DITCH EFFORT FOR MANY
For Conley and many others, coming to Boulder Crest feels like a last-ditch effort. People who have lived through the trauma of war often end up in a place of exhaustion and doubt, unsure if anything can really make a difference. But she can now say without hesitation that her Warrior PATHH program was life changing. “This opened my eyes. It opened the doors for me to live so much more fully, and because of what I’m going through, to learn how to turn that into my power. I’m writing my story. It’s not my death sentence. I can do so much more because of this. It’s incredibly powerful.”
HONORING THE LOST
No healing is complete without acknowledging loss. “For those that we lost, those that are no longer with us, we talk about living a better life because they aren’t here to do so. We honor their memory by being of service. By making a difference. By making that impact. And I think that’s the highest honor we can pay them. We talk about speaking their name so we don’t forget them, but also to keep them alive every day by living that life of service to others. That’s incredibly fulfilling.”
The personal cost of combat is steep, even for those who make it home. But ultimately for Conley, the perspective she gained was priceless. “It’s definitely made me stronger. I appreciate life, I appreciate people. I floundered a lot after getting out, trying to find my place, but as with a lot of really inverse life experiences, [when] you go through something like that it kind of lessens the impact of other things that others might find overwhelming.”
In some ways it brought clarity for her, and a stronger appreciation for the little things in life. She now spends a lot of time hiking and backpacking with her daughter. “We do a lot of stuff outdoors. Just being able to be outside and look around, it’s like wow—this is amazing, life is beautiful. Not only because of combat, but because what if I would have become a statistic? But I didn’t.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF SELF-CARE FOR WOMEN VETERANS
From Conley’s perspective, women Veterans in particular struggle greatly to prioritize self-care. Instead, women are more likely to place everything else before self, while men are more likely to take the time they need.
“Self-care is so important. I’m still learning that. I think women tend to struggle because we feel we have to sacrifice. We give, give, give, because we’re givers by nature. For us to not take advantage of self-care, I think that’s our own challenge that we get in our own way. I’m a single mom. It’s hard. But just because it’s hard, we don’t have to sacrifice. We’re better when we take care our ourselves. And we are worth it.”
COMBAT: A PIVOTAL POINT IN CHRISTINE CONLEY’S LIFE
Ultimately, Conley considers herself lucky for getting to do a lot of things that Navy folks don’t get to do. This was especially true for women before the combat restriction was lifted in 2016. “I am very proud of my service. I would do it all again in a heartbeat, to include having gotten hurt.”
“My combat deployments were kind of a pivotal point in my life. If that wouldn’t have happened to me, what kind of a life would I be living? Now I live with a sense of urgency. With a purpose.” From her experience of combat to the aftermath, “I was one of those almost statistics. I was in a very dark place. And now to be where I’m at and knowing where I came from, none of that would have happened had it not been for those kinds of experiences.” She acknowledges that getting there is hard work, but it’s made her who she is today.
COMING FULL CIRCLE
Conley is now a Warrior PATHH Guide at Boulder Crest in Virginia, helping others navigate their own journey of Posttraumatic Growth. She encourages any Veteran for whom her story resonated with to check out the Warrior PATHH Program, which is provided at no cost to participants.
As someone who is working on living more fully herself, she is deeply grateful to have learned the skills needed to turn her struggles into strength, and feels honored to be able to guide others as they do the same. “We’re all imperfectly perfect, but there is so much opportunity for us to live that full life when we do accept that there’s more, and that we’re stronger together.”
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