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  • Roxanne Petraeus

Reflections on service, imposter syndrome, and what to wear

This article was originally published to Medium on November 10th, 2019

With my then friend, now husband, in Afghanistan

This Veterans Day, I’m sharing some reflections on being a veteran and a woman. While veterans aren’t a monolithic group, and all I can speak to is my own experience, I’m sharing with the hope that this will give you a sense of the motivations and experiences that led me to start Ethena.


I welcome your thoughts and reflections.


Veterans Day Dress Code


“Where are your medals?” my husband texted me. “I’ll put them in the suitcase so I don’t forget to bring them.” We’d been invited to a veterans dinner and I had put off deciding what I was going to wear. But the dinner was black-tie and former service members were supposed to wear their medals (smaller versions of medals awarded during one’s service) on their tuxedos. Or in my case, a dress.


Military traditions, like the military itself, were developed for men. While there are obvious historic reasons for this, they are increasingly less salient. It may seem trivial, but I’m often reminded of how the military wasn’t designed for people like me through small things, like figuring out how to put mini medals on a dress, how to respond to a veterans outreach email that begins, “Gentlemen,” or how to react when someone casually says, “Soldiers and their wives.”


I texted my husband back that I didn’t have any medals. I’d never bothered to buy them since leaving uniform after almost seven years of service. The few times I’d gone to formal events since leaving the army, I just went in a dress, my husband wore his medals, and people thanked him for his service. I was planning on leaving it at that.

But my husband insisted I get and wear medals, telling me that he wanted people to know that I had served too and that there was nothing “showy” about doing so. These medals gave us an opportunity to talk about how we reflect on our service, and I shared my struggles with imposter syndrome, the feeling that I was somehow undeserving of recognition for my time in uniform.


Part of this is my awareness that my service pales in comparison to what many others have given; and even in writing this, I struggle with the thought that I could be misconstrued as comparing myself to those who’ve given life, limb or mental health for their country. I am profoundly fortunate in that I returned home. The inscription on Harvard’s Memorial Church, where I was married, beautifully reminds me that many others didn’t: “While a bright future beckoned, they freely gave their lives and fondest hopes, for us and our allies, that we might learn from them courage in peace to spend our lives making a better world for others.”


But it’s not only my recognition that others have given much more than I; my gender undoubtedly contributes to my discomfort with identifying as a veteran. I’m aware that I don’t match many people’s perception of what a veteran looks like. For example, I was recently at a new doctor’s office and the nurse had filled out some initial paperwork. When I reviewed the document, I noticed she had checked “no” next to box labeled “veteran.” I asked if “veteran” meant what I thought it did, and she nodded. I told her I was an army veteran, and she quickly apologized and changed the box. She meant nothing by it — it was just an everyday heuristic, one of many we all use to get through the world. But this doesn’t happen to my husband.


My husband bought the medals for me, and he even tested them out on a few dresses to see what fabric could hold them (PSA: they are not made for gauze). Together, we wore our medals, and I was glad he’d pushed me to do so. Like every veteran, I deserve the right to demonstrate my commitment to our country without feeling like my service was somehow “less than” by nature of my gender in a system originally built for men. On this occasion, I found my husband’s insistence that I wear my medals to be a great example of how all genders can be supportive in broadening our perspective on who serves.


This Veterans Day, I hope we can make room for remembering and honoring a diverse group of veterans, including women like Grace Hopper, Naval officer and a pioneer in computer science; Eileen Collins, an Air Force veteran and first woman to command a space shuttle mission; or the women of the post-9/11 era, including Shaye Haver and Kristen Griest, the first women to graduate from the U.S. Army’s Ranger School.


If we expand our vision of who wears the uniform, we can help veterans who may feel undeserving or somehow less than; we can honor their service not just in concept but as individuals who each made unique sacrifices.

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