Symposium in Pittsburgh Focusing on Female Veterans
By Joyce Gannon / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Chris Cieslak returned to Pittsburgh in April 2012 after a year’s duty as a U.S. Army Reserves officer in Kabul, Afghanistan, and was showered with praise by family, friends and professional colleagues.

But by that June, the project director for Oxford Development Co. felt as if she had slammed into a brick wall of depression that left her feeling like a fraud.

“People had been putting me on a pedestal … constantly giving me positive feedback about being brave. I knew I needed help but I didn’t know what help I needed.”

Fortunately for Ms. Cieslak, who is now a lieutenant colonel with a reserves unit based in Coraopolis, she has a supportive husband; an employer that encouraged her to slow down and mend emotionally; and the resources to seek therapy, medication and yoga classes to help sort out her post-deployment issues.

Not all returning veterans are in as good a place.

Female veterans, in particular, may encounter problems that differ from those of male counterparts — such as sexual assault and gender discrimination — and which veteran service organizations may not be prepared to handle.

To help address the issues, the United Way of Allegheny County has coordinated a symposium to be held today, that will include expert speakers and panel discussions about topics specific to female veterans, including housing options, mental health concerns and outreach services. The Eden Hall Foundation is sponsoring the event along with the Veterans Leadership Program.

Ms. Cieslak is one of the keynote speakers for the symposium to be held at the Fairmont Pittsburgh, Downtown. She was also scheduled to speak last night at a fundraiser sponsored by the United Way’s United for Women initiative. All proceeds from that event — which also featured author Lee Woodruff, whose husband, Bob Woodruff suffered traumatic injuries while covering the Iraq War for ABC News — will be used to benefit programs for female veterans.

“We as a community have a responsibility to our female veterans who need additional support,” said Pat Siger, a consultant for the United for Women initiative which encourages local women to target their charitable contributions to agencies that support women in crisis and transition.

“We did our due diligence, understood the problem and got educated about it. That’s a true philanthropist,” Ms. Siger said of United for Women’s interest in female veterans.

When the group launched in September 2012, it set a goal of raising $1 million within a year to donate to organizations that assist women. So far, it has raised $700,000 and hoped to add to that total through last night’s fundraiser.

“I’m confident we’ll get another $300,000 by September,” said Ms. Siger.

When Ms. Cieslak’s emotions began to spiral downward after she returned from Afghanistan — where she was assigned to create a plan for closing major military bases — she at first ignored the signs of depression. As a veteran, “you expect to live up to the idealized version of the returning citizen soldier.”

“I put a lot of pressure on myself. You feel guilty about feeling bad.”

At today’s symposium, she hopes participants will “see that we come back and could be anywhere on the spectrum of vulnerability depending on the intensity of our tour and the severity of our injuries.”


Joyce Gannon: or 412-263-1580.
First Published June 11, 2013 12:36 am

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