- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Many female veterans face a mundane yet frustrating challenge: transitioning from their ubiquitous uniforms to civilian clothing. Indeed, the Department of Defense offers a special course to teach their departing ranks how to dress for life after service.

The course has been offered since 1990, but as about 200,000 women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan return to find work outside the military, the demand for wardrobe tutelage may be growing.

“In the Army, one style fits all. When you go from wearing [Army combat uniforms] every day that are provided to you, you don’t have to think about suits, colors, shoes, current style,” says retired Army veteran Ramona Joyce. “Now, getting ready for work is no big deal, but when I first got out, I gained a special appreciation for not having to think about what I was going to wear, be it [to] the office, motor pool or firing range.”

Linda Wellman, an Army reservist, says she, too, sees her female colleagues sometimes daunted by the adjustment.

“For someone who came right out of high school or college into the military, the only comparable experience might be dressing to go to church. It is something you don’t think about until you are faced with it,” she says.

Ms. Wellman explains that all service members exiting the military are required to undergo “pre-separation” counseling, but some veterans elect to pursue a special resource called the Transition Assistance Program (TAP). TAP consists of seminars orchestrated by the Department of Defense to teach military personnel skills key to their segue, such as resume writing, how to prepare for an interview and, important for female veterans such as Ms. Joyce, what to wear.

“One TAP class included a professional stylist to give us the latest tips on how to dress. She stressed that all-important first impression with your potential new employer. She explained sticking to the basics - basic solid-colored suits, for example, not some loud striped number from the ‘90s hiding in the back of your closet - and what essential separates to buy, how to mix and match, change up your wardrobe and dress up what you already own,” Ms. Joyce says.

Julie Halstead, a site manager for the Army Career and Alumni Program based in Arlington, says the Dressing for Success seminar is “wildly popular for both men and women.” She says the course is only offered once a month, leaving many asking why more courses are not offered. “We always get rave reviews about the course,” Ms. Halstead says.

Ms. Joyce says that although she finds specialized courses and other programs helpful, she gained more insight through observation.

“For women, it’s all about peer counseling,” she says. “You find someone down the hall who dresses appropriately, and you copy it.”

Gay Broadway, a medical commander in the District Army National Guard, did not have any difficulty with her wardrobe transition.

“I don’t find it a challenge because I like to have control of what I wear,” she says.

Maria Cuomo Cole, chairman of HELP USA, an organization that helps disenfranchised veterans, says a new job and wardrobe can give female veterans a renewed sense of confidence. She says women in the military often are demoralized by sexual harassment and ridicule. According to HELP USA statistics, 20 percent of women report sexual trauma while on active duty.

“In the case of female veterans of war, they are often burdened by complex issues related to the difficult transition to civilian life,” Mrs. Cole says. “It is important for women to feel comfortable in their new lifestyle and prepared for social and professional experiences.”

Ms. Halstead agrees: “We teach that you need to put your best foot forward. When you look good, you feel good.”

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