When Lucy Del Gaudio parks in a veteran space, attends events for former service members, or is out with her husband on Veterans Day, she hardly is recognized.
“They're like: ‘Oh, thank you for your service, Mr. Del Gaudio,” said the Army vet from the Desert Storm era. “That's something that women face all the time... it's a harder identification and they automatically assume that he's the veteran, not you.”
That invisibility hurts female veterans in bigger ways — from homelessness to health care — and Del Gaudio is working hard to combat that. But it was a long journey for her as she had to first overcome sexual trauma she experienced in the military before giving back.
“I felt like my service was tarnished. I really didn't discuss it” until a friend in 2014 convinced her to join a veterans organization, se explained. “He goes: ‘Lucy, you should join. Your story should be heard. Other women veterans should know what you experienced and you could help them.’"
‘Bit of a Private Benjamin’
Del Gaudio joined the Army out of necessity. Her father passed away while she and her sister were in college, and her mother could only afford to keep one of them in school. Del Gaudio’s older brothers both served — one in the Army and the other in the Marines.
She chose the Army, for its shorter basic training.
A self-described city kid from the New York metro area, Del Gaudio was sent to Fort Jackson, South Carolina where she experienced fire ants and muggy weather.
“I was a bit of a Private Benjamin,” she said. “I didn't know what I was getting myself into.”
She transferred to Fort Devens in Massachusetts and then to Germany when the first Gulf War was heating up. While not technically considered a Desert Storm veteran, her role supported the operations in Kuwait.
“Then I had an experience in Germany that brought me back stateside,” she said. “And that's when I transferred from Active Army to Reserves and I did my final years in the military as a reservist.”
‘The self-healing of myself’
When Del Gaudio transitioned back to civilian life, she was unprepared. She didn’t know how to budget, a common challenge for veterans who are used to having housing, meals, and clothes provided for them. She also had a hard time finding housing, moving back in with her family.
She didn’t know how to write a resume, translating what she did in the Army to job skills that employers were looking for.
“I was a Morse code interceptor,” she said. “What could a Morse code interceptor really do in the business field?"
Eventually, she found herself in information technology and later as a program manager job for Prudential Advisors where she runs financial wellness programs for employees and military members.
“They really took a shot on me,” she said. “They saw the experiences I had on what I've done in this space, in the veterans space, but they also saw all the other things that I do, not just the IT person.”
The sexual trauma had taken a toll. By 2016, she was 269 pounds and was on a cocktail of medications for depression, anxiety, and high blood pressure.
When told she was about to become a diabetic, Del Gaudio pledged to change. She went holistic, with the blessing of her family, doctor, and therapist. The last time she took her meds was on April 7, 2017. She started running, did yoga, and meditated.
“That's when everything, my scope really changed and where I did the self-healing of myself,” she said. “And then, I really took the deep dive into the women veterans space and to the advocacy part of it.”
‘All catered to men’
When Del Gaudio experienced sexual trauma in the military, it was in the 90s and it was handled differently than today. But she realizes it remains difficult for female veterans to talk about it.
“That's one of my biggest advocacy roles, is to talk to women about their experiences, tell them that it's okay to talk about it, to identify as a woman survivor because we're all survivors, “ she said. “We didn't ask for what happened to us and you don't expect to join the military and that to happen to you, but it does.”
Del Gaudio is tackling other issues unique to female veterans through her volunteerism that is supported by her employer through its Prudential Veterans Initiative. She noted female homelessness is on the rise, and one of the biggest problems for women veterans in New Jersey is transition housing.
“You can't have a child because of the way they're set up,” she said, noting that the 10 beds in the state dedicated to women veterans don’t allow children. “Just realistically, the transition housing is all catered to men.”
Another problem women veterans face is a lack of gender-specific healthcare through the Veterans Affairs (VA) health system. Del Gaudio is fighting to get a women’s clinic in the state and at least one mammogram machine for the 27,000 women veterans in New Jersey.
When women do visit the VA, they often face harassment while there. “A lot of women don't like using the VA because that takes place,” she said.
It’s not always a fight, though. There are celebrations, too, like last June when the state of New Jersey designated June 12 as Women Veterans Appreciation Day. It was a milestone that Del Gaudio had spent 22 months knocking on policymakers’ doors to get it to happen.
“I think people don't realize historically the value of the woman veteran, back from the Civil War when we got dressed as men to fight the war,” Del Gaudio said. “We have an opportunity to teach our children what women have done in the military. It's a really great history.”