A few weeks ago, Brittany Jo Evans was shopping for groceries at Schnucks when a man stopped her to inquire about the “U.S. Army veteran” sweatshirt she was wearing. Before thanking her for her service, he asked one question that caught Evans off guard – “Are you a veteran?”
Although she knew the man’s intentions were good, the clarifying question frustrated her. Evans, who served in the army for several years before enrolling at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, wondered if the same question would be asked of any of the men she served alongside.
“My sweatshirt literally says ‘U.S. Army veteran’ – why would he question that?” she said. “To me, it implied that I could be wearing someone else’s sweatshirt, not that I’m a veteran. By verifying that I am what I say I am, instead of just saying, ‘Thank you for your service,” it’s harmful and not helpful. That’s the kind of thing that a lot of a women veterans deal with all the time. They feel essentially unseen. They don’t feel validated. They don’t feel appreciated.”
That feeling of being unseen inspired Evans’ poem of the same name, which won two awards from the VA St. Louis Health Care System’s Local Creative Arts Festival in October. “Unseen” won first place in the “Military Experience Poetry” category, as well as the Best in Show award across the creative writing category, which also includes personal essays, short stories, humor and more. Another of Evans’ poems, “Addiction (Codependency)” tied for second place in the “Poetry – Non-Rhyming” category. “Unseen” will now move on to the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival, which will be judged this month with winners announced in January 2023.
Both poems strike a deeply personal chord for Evans, who also received the Barbara A. Kachur Memorial Writing Award through UMSL in 2022. “Unseen” is rooted in the female veteran experience, capturing that feeling of being invisible and exploring the often different standards for male and female veterans.
Often, I’m called “sweetie” or “girl”
While others are thanked with a “Sir”
Usually, treated by males like I’m a pretender
…It’s all just a part of my gender
Yet, civilians will say she’s a contender,
A challenge, a threat, then they’ll resent her
Evans’ other poem, “Addiction (Codependency),” was inspired by her mother’s struggles with alcohol and the toll that the addiction took on her personally. Evans has been attending Al-Anon Family Group for about four years now, and credits the program with helping her to realize how much she had lost sight of her own life while trying to help her mother.
“My mother was an alcoholic, and I would make that my whole life, especially as a child,” she said. “And I developed codependency – it’s like an addiction to people. So just like my mom was obsessed with drinking, I was obsessed with what my mom was doing, and I spent so much of my time trying to control the chaos in her life that I didn’t take care of myself. I did not essentially live my own life. I didn’t know where I ended and she began, and it’s a hard thing. I think people who are closely connected with someone that has an addiction don’t realize how sick they get as well. You’ve kind of lost sight of your life and then you try to control things that are uncontrollable and your life becomes unmanageable. That’s what that poem is about. I loved my mom very much, but our relationship was essentially toxic.”
Although both of her poems reflect deeply intimate experiences, Evans doesn’t shy away from difficult or uncomfortable topics in her writing. Rather, she said it’s therapeutic to get it down on paper and out of her head. She also hopes her poems can help others dealing with similar experiences.
“I think that’s how we help other people,” Evans said. “It is hard stuff, but I think that we need to open up and talk about these things because we’re never going to heal unless we see what’s in front of us.”
Evans hopes to make helping others navigate these challenges a part of her professional career, too. Down the road, she’d like to pursue a Master of Social Work degree and work with veterans – specifically women veterans – and families dealing with addiction. This week, she will take the first step toward that goal when she graduates from UMSL with her bachelor’s degree in liberal studies – an effort over a decade in the making.
Evans’ path to graduation hasn’t been a straight line. She initially started a bachelor’s program at another university in 2010, attending classes on and off over the years. From 2013 to 2015, she took a break from school to serve in the United States Army, working in human resources at Fort Wainwright in Fairbanks, Alaska, until she was medically retired after an injury.
In the fall of 2017, she enrolled at UMSL for a semester. But in 2018, she was forced to put her education on pause once again when she became her mother’s full-time caregiver. After a long struggle with alcohol, Evans’ mother ultimately passed away last year, and she enrolled at UMSL once again to finish out her degree.
“It’s taken me some time to get here,” she said. “But with all that said, I’m here, you know? It’s great. I encourage anybody to do school, no matter how old you are. A lot of people that are older can be very leery about doing school, but you don’t have to be full-time; you can take one class at a time. I just think it’s important to continue your education no matter what that looks like.”