Lauren Cust comes from a long line of veterans, so it was natural for her to sign up for the military in July 2006.
“My great-grandfather, who immigrated from Italy, earned his citizenship fighting in World War I for the United States,” Cust said. “A family member has been in every war since.”
Cust was honorably discharged from the Army Reserve in September 2011. Her total tour — including time in Iraq — was 15 months.
“I really struggled when I returned from Iraq,” the Shelton resident said. “I always say the hardest part of my deployment was coming home. Combat changes a person.
“I didn’t really realize just how much I had changed, but everyone around me did,” she said.
Cust, originally from Ridgefield, had wanted to enlist in 2000 after graduating from high school but her parents convinced her to attend college first.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in social work from Salve Regina University in Rhode Island.
“After graduation I got my first job as a case manager, but I still felt the drive to join the military,” Cust said. Two years later, she enlisted in the Army Reserve to serve in the military police.
“At the time it was the closest a woman could get to combat, or so I thought,” she said. “Little did I know I would be in combat for my entire tour.”
Coming back home
Once home, it was difficult for Cust to connect with family and friends again.
“It is especially hard on women to readjust to civilian life because we are considered the nurturers in families,” she said. “It is so hard to go from having to have your emotions turned off in combat and to come home and nurture a family.
“I was struggling with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) but I didn’t want to admit it,” she said.
Cust said veterans face many struggles, such as finding employment, housing and support. Then there are those somewhat hidden struggles that many veterans face.
“So many of our veterans struggle with PTSD, anxiety, depression and suicide. There is also the hidden trauma of military sexual trauma that many women and some men have experienced while in the service,” she said.
“This is a national disgrace and something I have personally dealt with,” Cust continued. “It compounds the issues women face when we return. To defend yourself from the enemy is one thing. To have to defend yourself from your fellow soldiers is a betrayal that shakes you to your core.”
She said when she returned home, she and her husband lost friends because of her internal struggles. She continues to work hard to readjust to civilian life.
“I wish it was as easy as flipping a switch and magically you are better, but that isn’t the reality of it,” Cust said.
She now has a master’s degree in social work and continues making strides.
A connection with a Vietnam vet
Cust has been assisted by Al Meadows of Shelton, a wounded Vietnam veteran. “He helped me more than I ever imagined possible,” she said.
“He helped me to connect to other veterans, to other women veterans and to have a support network of people who understood what I had been through,” she said. “With Al’s help and the help of my service dog, I have healed in ways I never thought were possible.”
Meadows is a member of AmVets Post 43 in Shelton.
Cust’s service dog helps her cope with trauma from having served in combat.
Many ways to help
There are many things people can do to help struggling veterans, according to Cust.
“Helping a veteran can be as simple as hiring one,” she said. “I am a social worker and I have had many employers tell me they are afraid to hire veterans because they do not know when a veteran may ‘go off’ or ‘lose it.’ This is very distressing to me.”
She said more people need to be educated about PTSD so they are not so afraid of it.
Cust said the general public can back organizations that support veterans, and initiate good deeds such as mowing a veteran’s lawn or just saying “thank you” to a veteran.
Recently, the AmVets Post 43 Female Veterans Committee was formed. This committee focuses on advocacy, outreach and education.
“We work to connect female veterans in a positive way and give each veteran the help they need,” Cust said.
There is always hope
She said her fellow veterans, especially the women, should remember there is always hope.
“Twenty-two veterans dying from suicide a day is not acceptable,” Cust said. “Reach out to someone for help. Look for the Al Meadows in your community and reach out to them. Join a veterans organization, go to the VA, learn what is available to help you and use it.
“Then when you are back on your feet, go back and help the veteran behind you,” she said. “We never leave anyone behind, in combat or when we return.”