'No woman fights alone': How this Iowan helps female veterans find purpose when their service ends
Alyssa Flood's friend was cleaning out a closet when she found the fatigues.
She’d tucked her uniform away in the bottom of the wardrobe, pushed toward the back, when she got out of the Army. Left it there to gather dust. As she laid the camouflage out on her bed, a pack of cigarettes peeked out from the left arm pocket.
Are the cigarettes still good? Flood asked her middle school friend, Lori, over Facebook messenger.
I don’t know, but I’m going to try them, Lori replied, sassy as always.
It’s crazy, Lori messaged a bit later. But I can’t shake the feeling that a part of me has been with that pack of cigarettes — with that uniform — since the last time I took it off. Maybe it’s a part I’ll never get back.
Lori’s transition from active duty to civilian life had been rough, and, recently, the tone of her social media posts changed, becoming a little sadder and a bit bleaker, like the bad days had started to outnumber the good. The shift in the funny, quirky girl who’d been Flood’s locker mate in Ankeny nearly two decades earlier was subtle, not pronounced enough to cause alarm.
But a few months later, Lori lost the battle raging inside her mind and her soul. She was dead — “gone” Flood prefers to say — a victim of self-medication, loved ones still unsure if her actions were intentional or accidental.
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As Flood cycled through the usual questions in the wake of unexpected death — What did I miss? Had I reached out enough? Did she know how much I cared for her? — she wondered how many other female veterans had trouble transitioning out of the military, trouble finding a new purpose out of their old uniform.
Lori’s story wasn’t unique, Flood knew that, but just how many other Loris were out there?
Armed with strong Wi-Fi and an even stronger conviction, Flood, 33, hunkered down on her Colfax couch, opened Facebook and created a page. “Bombshell Patriots,” she wrote, would be a group dedicated to ensuring every female veteran has a place to turn when life on the home front gets to be too much. She added a photo of Rosie the Riveter and typed out a tagline: “No woman fights alone.”
When she went to bed that night, the group had six followers, all personal acquaintances. By morning, more than 300 women had joined. And, two years later, the nonprofit organization has continued to explode, spreading mostly by word of mouth.
Today, Bombshell’s Facebook page boasts followers from 48 states and 13 countries. A planned January website redesign will feature new forums and easier access to resources, a shiny “Bombshell-verse,” Flood says.
And in September, the digital group made its biggest offline move yet by hosting the first State of Iowa Female Veteran Conference. The event was so well-received that it will expand to three full days next year.
Since starting the group, Flood has cultivated an image of power and of femininity, shedding the stuffy, staid nature of some military-sponsored organizations, she says, flipping her hair to reveal her head shaved on one side. She wants to “appeal to my generation,” whether that be through TikTok videos or group texts, memes or Instagram-ready promos, motorcycle rides or martini-soaked mani-pedis.
Come to Bombshells as you are, all battle scars welcome, Flood says, but understand out of her deep grief came an even deeper purpose — to keep as many veterans as she can on this side of the grave.
“My job now is to do whatever I can to make sure your family and your friends don’t stand where we stand to visit Lori,” she says.
Searching for identity, finding a family
Sitting in the shadow of an illuminated American flag woodcarving — a hobby of her veteran husband — stories rush through Flood's mind of all the women who, before contacting Bombshells, had reached the end of themselves.
There was the 20-something so busted up from service that pain shoots through her spine, leaving her hobbled and down. She came to the page seeking a community, a way to connect even when she was homebound.
There was the mother stuck in an abusive relationship. She needed gas money to get her daughter and her truck across state lines. There was the woman stressed to her limits over a contentious custody battle in which her PTSD diagnosis had become central. She just wanted a Bombshell to look over her paperwork, for fresh eyes to assure her she hadn’t made any mistakes.
And there was Emily Meier, 25, a Waterloo native whose goals had been centered on climbing the military chain of command before a serious ankle injury drummed her out of the service. She’d meant to be a lifer, but she’d made it only four years.
“One day they say you can’t serve anymore, and you want to throw up and cry and scream and yell all at the same time,” she said. “Then you get out, and you feel like you don’t belong anywhere. Family doesn’t get you. Your whole life has changed.”
The requests Bombshell receives run the gamut from help for suicidal thoughts or treatment for a long-ignored sexual assault to asks with much lower stakes, like how to wear your hair not in a bun or how to socialize with men who aren’t fellow soldiers. Whether big or small, when women get out of the armed forces, there’s almost a deconditioning process, Flood says.
“Everything starts with, ‘What do you need?’” Flood says. “Literally, what do you need, and we will go from there.”
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Most — like Meier — come to Bombshells searching for a place to fit in, for a new identity, one not covered in camo.
Officially, Bombshell’s mission is three-pronged: The group is a bridge connecting women in crisis with available services. It’s a digital (and sometimes in person) space for camaraderie, empowerment and guidance. Recent posts from active duty soldiers include what to do when your period starts while you’re in the field and advice on the finer points of covertly dressing and undressing in a sleeping bag.
And, lastly, it’s an in-your-face statement that women have long served in the armed forces and long will. The lack of recognition — whether that be by people asking a woman wearing a battlefield hat where her husband fought or denying a female veteran a posted discount because “it’s only for those who served” — is one of the most common issues Flood hears.
A paralegal by trade, Flood isn’t a veteran; a bad case of asthma kept her out of uniform. However, the military, the virtues of service and helping your fellow woman run deep in her family. Her grandpa was a Marine; her dad, too. Her family was stationed at Camp Lejeune when she was born, but moved back to Iowa soon after.
“A jughead through and through,” Flood’s dad never stopped wearing a high top, she says with a laugh. He taught his children military cadences and call-and-response songs made for marching, which Flood and her siblings, a four-member troop, loved repeating, parading up and down the supermarket aisles.
Birdie, birdie in the sky / Dropped a little whitewash in my eye / I'm no sailor I won't cry / Thank the Lord that cows don't fly.
But Flood finds herself connecting with female veterans for more than just family lineage and a lost friend. Flood fought anxiety and depression and battled back from abuse and the deep-seated belief that she would never, could never, amount to anything. That voice inside her head telling her she wasn’t good enough gnawed at her so viciously that she tried to take her own life as a teenager.
Brokenness recognizes brokenness, she says, even if the circumstances differ. And if a member isn’t strong enough right then to slay her dragons, an army of Bombshells is steady behind her, ready to pick up their swords and go to war.
No woman fights alone. Ever.
“This is a family, more than a community,” Meier says. “Everyone looks out for one another, whether you’re 10 minutes away or hours and hours and miles and miles. We genuinely care about each other and genuinely want to help one another.”
A 'God-given purpose' helps confront demons
Back in middle school, when they'd chat in the dugout of their softball games or at their lockers during passing periods, Flood noticed Lori was the sort of girl who picked up everyone around her. She was always the one to ask, “Hey, you doing OK?”
Since her death, Flood’s wondered if anyone had ever really been that person for Lori — and if having that person would have made a difference in the end. Sometimes her mind wanders back to Lori’s funeral, to the emptiness she felt then. Other times it drifts to an impossible future, one where Lori is part of the group physically, not just spiritually.
As the group grows, Flood believes she’s living her “God-given purpose.” But she’s also had to confront her own demons, namely the nagging voice inside her head telling her she’s not good enough, that she’s not cut out to lead, that she’s not truly one of them.
Breathe, a veteran friend once told her, and remember, you’re not speaking for yourself, you’re speaking for all the veterans who aren’t ready to speak for themselves yet.
“I've never been able to be strong and brave when it came to me," Flood says. "But I'll (mess) you up over somebody that I care about. So, don't mess with my girls. Those are my girls, and I'm gonna take care of them.”
Nearly all of Flood's off-time nowadays is filled with Bombshell work. Flood organized the group as a nonprofit, funded through sponsorships and merchandise sales. It's “about as grassroots as it gets” right now, but Flood’s slowly building her coalition. Next year, she’ll seek grants and donations with more fervor in the hopes of eventually building a headquarters, complete with classrooms for resume assistance and studio space for restorative yoga.
Flood’s journey founding and nurturing Bombshell Patriots may have started with a casualty, but defining the group by loss alone is selling the story short. Scars, you see, don’t have to simply be a reminder of what happened. They can just as easily be a memorial to what happened next.
Bombshells will ultimately be defined by gain, Flood says. For her, the gain is in nascent friendships and newfound purpose. For members, the gain may be in an answer or in a helping hand or in finally discovering the strength to pick up all the sharp, broken pieces of their lives and the fortitude to lacquer their ragged edges back together.
Or maybe the gain is in just knowing that there's army of Bombshells at your back, each one ready to pick up swords and slay dragons.
Courtney Crowder, the Register's Iowa Columnist, traverses the state's 99 counties telling Iowans' stories. Her grandfather Harold Crowder served as a physician in the World War II era and her grandfather Chester Care was in military intelligence during the Korean War. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8360. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.
Become a Bombshell
To learn more about Bombshell Patriots, visit their website at BombshellPatriots.org.