JARRELL — Rhonda Mack always wanted to be a soldier, and when her dream came true in 1990, she was excited to follow in the footsteps of her beloved older brother, who served in the U.S. Army and the Air Force.
Two years later, that longtime dream came painfully crashing down.
Her military career ended prematurely, but eventually that disappointment and trauma led the New Orleans native on a dedicated mission to help other women veterans who faced similar issues during their time in uniform.
“I served as a military police officer, and unfortunately I experienced MST (military sexual trauma), which wound up ending my military career,” said Mack, a 50-year-old single mother of one who lives now in Jarrell, about a half-hour south of Killeen-Fort Hood.
“It was more than harassment. Harassment doesn’t even count — we are so used to that happening every day. I had three actual experiences of sexual assault in the military.
“I never reported it, essentially for two reasons: Two of my abusers lived in the same barracks with me, and one of them was a supervisor of my boyfriend at the time. Two of them said the same thing — ‘Who are you gonna tell? The police? They’re not gonna believe you. The police are already here.’
“That was one reason, and then there is the overall culture of the military. You do not report anything that makes you look weak, and so that was the ultimate weakness as a police officer. How does this happen? Not only once, but how did I miss the cues of two friends of mine and the supervisor of my boyfriend. How did I miss that?
“So I hadn’t planned on ever reporting it. I was trying to figure out what I was going to do, because I had to see my abusers every single day.”
Born and raised in Louisiana’s famed “The Big Easy,” Mack graduated high school in St. James Parish in 1988, and after one year of college, she enlisted in the Army and was off to basic training at Fort McClellan, Ala.
“My father passed away when I was 9, and my big brother, Donald, who is 16 years older than me, was in the military — the Army and the Air Force — and he was my hero. He stepped into the father figure role and everything he did, I wanted to do.
“My mom had made a deal with me. She said I could (join the Army) as long as I graduated from college first. After a year of college, my mother passed away and I joined the military.
“I loved it,” she said of her experiences with the rigors of boot camp. “I knew that they could not actually lay their hands on me, so they could yell and scream and do all that stuff … and I knew I was going to make it through, regardless.
“Actually, the structure in the military was very similar to my mother’s home, so I felt right at home. I was also a tomboy, so I enjoyed every part of it.”
After basic, Mack was assigned to Fort Sheridan, Ill., where she excelled as an MP, but also suffered the repeated abuse that drove her back to civilian life. She wanted out but did not know where to turn for help.
Then, as her unit prepared to deploy overseas to join Operation Desert Storm, she suffered a major knee injury that eventually resulted in a medical discharge in 1992.
“My knee just went out,” she said. “We were loading up gear to deploy, and sometime later that week, the tendon or something in my knee popped and I ended up having to have surgery. I used that as my reason to get out.”
She went back to college and earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree, then went to work helping other veterans. All that time, she was battling the emotional after-effects of her abuse and still having trouble finding help.
“It took me several years, from 1992 through 2002 to find out what was available to women veterans, and that happened quite by accident. I decided to go back to school after several horrible personal things happened, which I found out later was due to the MST, and not knowing there were any resources available to women veterans.
“In 2002, I just happened to call the VA because I needed resources to go to school. That’s what opened the door. I enrolled in school and ended up moving to Texas in 2006. I got my bachelor’s and master’s degree at St. Edwards (University), and then I started working for American GI Forum and Texas Veterans Commission. I was a case manager for homeless veterans in 2014, and then I was a veterans career advisor for five years (2015-19).”
Now, Mack works as a licensed professional counselor associate for Texas Center Point Inc., a veterans services group, and is awaiting her certification as a fully licensed counselor.
She also is working to build Divas in Dog Tags, a support group she founded in 2017 specifically to assist female veterans and family members. The Jarrell-based group now has 40 members (six live in the Killeen-Fort Hood area) including Harker Heights City Council member Lynda Nash.
“We are a social support network that provides a safe space for women veterans, wives of veterans and daughters of veterans,” Mack said. “We are expanding and picking up a few out-of-state members — Maryland, North Carolina — but right now, we cover the central Texas area.
“I got out of the military in ’92 and between ’92 and 2017 I found that there were little to no resources readily available to women veterans — especially when it came to mental health benefits and a support network.
“From 2014 to ’19, I was working at Texas Veterans Commission as a career advisor. I was talking to other women veterans who did not view themselves as veterans because essentially the world is telling you that if you didn’t go to combat, if you served a short time, or just in general, they don’t see women as veterans.
“They always think of guys, and they’re always surprised when they find out that women veterans exist in the world.
“So, after talking to several (female vets) over the course of several years, I decided it was time for somebody to step up and do something. I was aware of WoVeN (Women Veterans Network), which is a nationwide network, but there wasn’t a WoVeN in my area, so I decided to start my own group.
“It started with about six of us. I named it Divas in Dog Tags, because the one thing that most women veterans have been trained to do is to deny anything that would associate them with being a woman. When we go into the military, we have to assimilate into that lifestyle; we have to disappear as women.
“Someone who was a good friend of mine tried to discourage me from naming my group Divas in Dog Tags — she’s a veteran, as well — because in her opinion women veterans don’t want to be associated with the color pink; they don’t want to be associated with anything shiny or blingy; and they don’t want to be called divas.
“Then I made the decision, ‘OK, everybody does not like pink; everybody does not like bling.’ It took me until I was 47 years old to actually admit that I’m a woman veteran and that it’s OK. I’m a therapist and I had to provide some counseling to myself.
“I am unapologetically a woman, and I am unapologetically a veteran. Those two things can exist at the same time.”
Although her military career did not go as planned and she still suffers from the trauma she endured, Mack says she does not regret joining the service.
“We’re creating a university-type program, so along with mental health counseling, we’re also going to offer a sexual health and wellness program. We’re going to address transition from the military, symptoms of trauma (PTSD, MST, anxiety and depression), and we’re also going to provide information about benefits and resources for women veterans.
“We’re starting more events in the Killeen area. We’re looking to build a bigger footprint there, so anyone who has questions is welcome to reach out to me.
“I will always love the military because I loved the opportunity to serve my country and to serve my fellow veterans. It will forever be in my blood, always.
“What makes me sad is what I went through then is still happening now, and it is still being covered up. My heart will always be with anyone who has experienced any type of trauma, and they feel no one has heard their voice.
“The military is still a good option for women. I just want them to make sure we’re safe.”
Along with working as a counselor and building her veterans group, Mack says she enjoys finding time to whip up some Creole dishes in the kitchen, play with her dogs and enjoy her daughter’s company.
“I am from New Orleans, so cooking, singing, and my dogs — and of course, my child — those are the joys of my life. I love to cook and sing, and I combine those quite often.
“My dogs are therapy for me, and my daughter is my biggest supporter. If I have to go to the VA or something, she understands my triggers. So along with being the world’s best daughter, she is an advocate for my self care, as I address and manage the daily symptoms of MST.
“I also love to travel — unfortunately, the pandemic has put a little bit of a damper on that.”