AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
On this Veterans Day, a record number of women are serving in the military. They're still outnumbered by men, and that makes it harder to find female mentors, both in the service and afterwards. NPR's Quil Lawrence went to a conference in Anaheim, Calif., and met some people trying to change that.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Lyla Kohistany joined the Navy just before 9/11, but it was on her first deployment to Afghanistan that she got her dream job.
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LYLA KOHISTANY: And I loved working with special ops to be around all of these really high-performing, high-speed people who were all about the mission. They just didn't seem to care that I was a woman, which was a really big deal when I was a surface warfare officer in the Navy.
LAWRENCE: Kohistany knows that for most Americans, the image of special ops is a bearded, burly guy. But the fact is women have been deploying on combat missions with them for years doing intel, logistics, civil affairs, the list goes on. On another deployment with special ops years later, Kohistany met then-Captain Nicole Alexander, who also loved the work. And they realized something.
NICOLE ALEXANDER: It came from our deployment in Afghanistan in 2013, 2014.
LAWRENCE: The two women had enjoyed good mentors and advanced within special ops, but other women on the same team had not, says Alexander.
ALEXANDER: We just saw a lot of our other colleagues and women that we'd come across just getting out of the military. It was just, you know, I'm not enjoying this. I don't feel challenged. I - my leaders aren't helping me. They're not supporting me.
LAWRENCE: Those women weren't failing out of the military. They were getting out to pursue better opportunities. Kohistany recalls one woman on the team.
KOHISTANY: She eventually ended up at JP Morgan. Now she's at Wharton. So, clearly, she's not a subpar performer. Those are the types of stories that really moved us to action.
LAWRENCE: And without more women staying in as role models, Kohistany says the military will have a harder time recruiting women.
KOHISTANY: And if women are getting out, it's not just that we're losing them. We're also losing future generations of women that could join our ranks.
LAWRENCE: So Kohistany, now retired from the Defense Intelligence Agency, and Alexander, now an Army special ops major, started an organization called Promote. It aims to connect women in national security with mentors so they'll stay in and get promoted. Alexander and Kohistany spoke at a conference in Anaheim, Calif., last month.
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KOHISTANY: We need to change the narrative about what women do in the military. All of you that are in here, you know, you're badass. You're high-performing women. You've done really great things in the military. How many people will ever know your story?
LAWRENCE: The audience was several dozen women, many with special ops experience. The event was hosted by another female-led veterans organization called COMMIT, which runs workshops focusing on a successful transition out of the military. It's run by Anne Meree Craig.
ANNE MEREE CRAIG: My name is Anne Meree Craig, and I served in the intelligence community for eight years.
LAWRENCE: Craig worked in Iraq and many other places.
CRAIG: I can tell you there was always, like, who the heck is this 5-foot blonde bouncing around?
LAWRENCE: Craig says these conferences create a safe space to work through anxieties about finding a fulfilling civilian career after the military.
CRAIG: It's an opportunity for them to share with one another and build rapport and bonds and certainly help one another out.
LAWRENCE: One of the presenters is Afghanistan vet and psychology writer Meaghan Mobbs. The whole audience nods as she talks about the one time she used a veterans-only parking space.
MEAGHAN MOBBS: It says reserved veteran parking. You know what I'm talking about?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I already know what you're going to say.
LAWRENCE: Of course, a guy in a pickup truck pulled up.
MOBBS: He leans out his window. He's like, you know those are for veterans, right? I'm like, I wish I could tell you I had, like, some, like, pithy quick response and said something snappy, but I just stood there dumbfounded.
LAWRENCE: Transition from the military is hard enough for men translating a military career into civilian terms. It's even harder when the civilians can't quite believe you are a veteran. Christiana Porter has been in the Army 22 years. Porter did multiple combat deployments up close with ISIS and the Taliban.
CHRISTIANA PORTER: We're used to the combat scenarios.
LAWRENCE: That didn't scare her, but leaving the military does.
PORTER: So for me, it's the fear of the unknown. But when you tell us that we're about to separate from something that we've known for 15, 20, whatever, how many years that you've served, that's really scary.
LAWRENCE: She's hoping the network she's making here will help if and when she decides to leave the Army.
Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Anaheim, Calif.
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