Photo Credit: Devin Mitchell, courtesy of Jovane Marie

Beyond Appearances: Marine Veteran faces challenges candidly

June 21, 2018 - 11:37 am
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By Antonieta Rico

"You don't look like a Marine!"

Jovane Marie, a former professional model and Pin Ups For Vets ambassador, is used to hearing that exclamation from men and even some women.  Her usual response?  "Don't let the pretty face fool you, I could kill you with my pinky." She's just kidding. Really.

"I look exactly like a Marine, society just needs to catch up," she said.

Another stereotype that Marie does not look like is a person living with Type I Bipolar Disorder.  

Photo courtesy of Jovane Marie

While still serving, Marie said she noticed the mood swings, going back and forth from manic to depressive episodes. She drank excessively and acted recklessly at times but glossed over her actions because they fit in with stereotypically accepted behavior for Marines. And despite swinging between extremes, she remained high functioning.  

It wasn't until she left the Marines that she was diagnosed as bipolar by the VA. The diagnosis came as a relief, she said, because it validated everything she had been going through.  Her diagnosis led her on the path to becoming an advocate for people suffering with mental health problems. She tries to battle the negative portrayals of bipolar disorder and open up dialogue especially within the veteran and African American communities, which she says are reluctant to address mental health struggles.

 "The stigma needs to end," she said. She believes ending the stigma also starts with de-stigmatizing herself. That is why she is open and forthcoming about her diagnosis, sharing it with friends, the public, and sometimes even on first dates.

"I drop it in conversation like it's nothing," she said.

She gets three typical reactions: the person is uncomfortable and she never hears from them again, they are immediately inquisitive and start asking questions, or they open up about their own struggles with mental health. She said being open about her diagnosis makes people feel comfortable sharing their own, their family's or their friend's issues. 

Overcoming stigma and seeking help is especially hard in the military and veteran community. Service members may worry about the impact on their careers, and women specifically may have a hard time getting treatment for their mental wellness needs because often their problems stem from military sexual trauma (MST), which is an epidemic in the military. A recent survey of military women by the Service Women's Action Network (SWAN) found that 49 percent attributed negative mental health outcomes  to military sexual assault, harassment or gender bias.  Additionally, according to a recent report, about one third of service members who come forward and report a sexual assault are kicked out of the military typically within 7 months of them reporting. That type of culture and retaliation can keep women (and men) in the military from seeking help for their mental health problems arising out from MST.

After they get out of the military, veterans continue to face challenges addressing their mental health. As a Marine, a woman and African American, Marie describes herself as "one of the few, of the fewer, of the fewer."  But being one of the few can also be isolating. Many women veterans report being unable to find a sense of community after getting out of the military.

Marie said she was able to connect with fellow vets after leaving the Marines through her job with U.S. Veterans Magazine, which required her to interact with veterans, and by being part of Pin Ups For Vets, a nonprofit which donates funds to VA hospitals for medical equipment. They also create an annual calendar that is modeled and distributed by ambassadors, mostly women veterans themselves, to fellow veterans at their bedside in VA hospitals nationwide. It is within the sisterhood of Pin Ups For Vets that Marie said she found the critical connection and support many need to improve their mental health.

Photo courtesy of Jovane Marie

 “They saved my life, literally, more than once,” Marie said.

And on the times that the disorder has knocked her down, Marie says she has been able to draw on the strength she found as a Marine to pull through. For good or bad, the Marines helped her define herself and discover her inner strength, she said, "It's no small thing to say you're a Marine. I know what I'm capable of."

In collaboration with the Service Women’s Action Network, we are featuring an inspiring woman veteran each month.

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