For 32 years, Jill Mathews had structure, a mission and a purpose in the Army. But after retiring as a Sergeant Major in 2016, she soon felt lost and struggled to figure out her place in the civilian world.
"I got up every morning and knew what I had to do for 32 years," Jill says. "And when I'm out here it's like, yeah I'm retired, but what is my purpose?"
Jill dealt with depression from the transition, but the experience helped make her aware she was not alone with these adversities and that other veterans faced similar struggles. With the skillsets and knowledge she gained throughout her military career, she discovered a new mission and found her role in the veteran community.
When Jill retired on Oct. 1, 2016 at the age of 50, she returned to her hometown of Muskegon Heights, Michigan. She knew she didn't want to jump straight into another job. She needed time to breathe, so she spent much of her first year traveling.
"The freedom to do nothing, everybody lives for it," she says. "But after a while it's like, you only can go so far with just doing nothing."
Jill missed the structure and sense of purpose the Army provided. Going to the gym and just having fun weren't filling these voids.
"There was a sense of accountability and responsibility that you had," Jill says of her time in the military. "I cherished that. So now you don't have that and you're like, okay, now what am I going to do?"
During her Army career, Jill worked in human resources, served as a drill sergeant and an Equal Opportunity Program Manager and was involved with the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention Program (SHARP). Her meritorious service while serving as the G1 Sergeant Major with Army's Sustainment Command earned her the Legion of Merit.
Jill's path to Sergeant Major began one day as a private. A leader pulled her aside and told her she could be a good leader, recommending she go through the Primary Leadership Development Course (PLDC), now known as the Basic Leader Course (BLC).
"So I did those things because a leader showed me," she says.
Years later, she found herself in a similar position, helping to identify the Army's next generation of leaders. As a leader of soldiers, she took pride in ensuring they were properly trained, advancing in their roles and ready to step up when it was their time to lead.
When she made the decision to retire, she thought she was prepared for the transition. In the months leading up to her exit, she participated in transition programs and got connected with VA resources and benefits. The Army, she notes, has gotten much better at making sure transitioning service members get connected to the benefits they earned.
But several months into retirement, Jill realized she just felt lost.
"Everybody will experience some different things in their life," she says. "Me, it was a depression, in a sense, because I needed to figure out what I wanted to do."
Jill decided to get back into volunteering. In the Army, she had volunteered at rescue missions and women's shelters, as a mentor with a veterans court, and at a VA hospital and Veterans Center.
When she started volunteering again, Jill struggled to adapt her military structure to a civilian audience and realized she was coming off a bit harsh.
"People really don't understand your language," she says. "They understand you as a person and they can see your heart with volunteering, but they don't understand really how you think."
She would find her fit in a volunteer role with WINC: For All Women Veterans. The organization brings awareness to the issues facing women veterans and provides a space where they can live, laugh and readjust to life after service while also identifying a group of women vets who have their back - or their "six" as it's known in the military.
For the leaders of WINC, they recognized Jill's military leadership background and the benefits she could bring to the organization. For Jill, she had found a group of women veterans who saw and accepted her for who she was and could help her rediscover her purpose.
Jill discovered that many women veterans weren't connected to the benefits and resources they had earned for their service. She took on the duty of helping them get connected and started by reaching out to women veterans she met through WINC.
"I'm reaching out because I'm gonna follow you from A to Z," Jill says. "I'm gonna get you the benefits, I'm gonna check on it and when I know that you're okay, and you tell me you're okay, I'm done. And even in the middle of it, you say you don't want to be bothered, you don't hurt my feelings because I got you halfway. I think and I hope and I pray that I made your quality of life just a tad bit better than it was the day before."
Because of the roles she had in the military, Jill can often see when another veteran is struggling and will do what she can to help.
"Half the time you don't have to do something," Jill says. "You just have to say, hey I'm a veteran too and I see you. I see what you need and if you need me, call me. And that's it."
Women veterans should check in on their military sisters, Jill says, but she also reminds them to be understanding if someone doesn't want to talk about that part of their life.
She recommends women veterans looking to connect with other women veterans, looking for a support system or for opportunities to feel empowered to check out WINC.
"This organization really helped me," she says.
Four years after retiring, Jill is doing much better, energized by helping and empowering veterans. She's also expanded her involvement in the veteran community by taking on an officer role in AMVETS Zaneta Adams Post 77 in Muskegon and member positions on the Muskegon County Veteran Advisory Committee and Michigan Veterans Trust Fund Board of Trustees.
"I am so proud to be a veteran," Jill says. "I'm just so content with what I do and who I am. At this point in my life and my experience, I only want to be where I can make an impact. I only want to go someplace and sit at the table where I can see the results. My helpful service. It is a part of my life until I take my last breath and I'm proud of it."
Do you see yourself or your military experiences in Jill? Reach out to other women of the military and encourage them through your story to get a benefits checkup or connect with other veteran service organizations or women's groups. You can learn more about WINC at wincforall.com.