Warrenton’s Dina Jens reflects on her experiences in the U.S. Army and as a veteran
In November, our thoughts turn to veterans and all they have done for their country. One Warrenton veteran continues to serve our country in a research capacity.
Dina Jens is a veteran who has served for eight years in active duty and one year in the reserves in the U.S. Army where she was primarily stationed in Texas, Colorado, and Bethesda. Dina and her husband, Jeremy, discovered Warrenton when they drove through on their way to visit Shenandoah National Park. They fell in love with the town and the people here, and decided to make it their home. She lives near Old Town with her husband and children Holden, 8, and Riley, 6, who both attend Highland School.
Dina works as a regulatory research scientist, serving as a liaison for research efforts between the Department of Defense and the Food and Drug Administration, while also working towards her second Master’s in Bioinformatics. She is looking forward to an upcoming transition where she will be leading a research consortium between the VA and the NIH, which will be focused on the deep phenotyping of Gulf War Illness, a diffuse constellation of symptoms in which one out of three Gulf War veterans is living with debilitating pain, fatigue, and other unexplained ailments. She is looking forward to helping the team make tangible scientific progress in the lives of these veterans, particularly since any physiologic correlates of this illness have been so elusive in the past 3 decades of research efforts.
Dina spoke to Warrenton Lifestyle and answered some of our questions about life in the military and as a veteran today.
Tell me a little about your overall service experience.
I entered the Army after hearing a radio commercial about money for college, which appealed to me as I was driving from my full-time job to one of my classes at the local community college. I left for basic training on October 4th, 2000. I started out as a veterinary technician and then cross-trained as a combat medic. I took advantage of every opportunity that came my way, and ended up at the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, which is where I left the service in May of 2009.
What was your military experience like as a woman?
It was quite the whirlwind, and I was definitely the minority – less so, since I was in the medical field, but still very much in the minority. Of all of the military branches, the Army, in particular, is physically focused – you are expected to be able to function optimally on foot in any terrain, with only your carried gear. So at 5’4”, I was expected to carry the same gear and keep the same speed and stamina of guys twice my size. As a woman, my peers and superiors were frequently surprised by what I was capable of – and it didn’t hurt to be small, since it enabled me to do many of the things my larger counterparts were incapable of doing. I did surprisingly well, though, often outperforming my peers, and being picked up for many nominative/special assignments.
Did you accomplish what you wanted to in the military? Are you glad you followed that path?
I set out to get money for college and learn translatable skills, and I left with many high-demand skill sets and multiple degrees. I was also able to test my physical and mental boundaries through increasingly challenging courses and duty assignments, which I wouldn’t have had the chance to do outside of the military. The Army definitively saved me, in more ways than one – I’m not sure where I’d be without that experience.
What was your biggest concern about life after service? How was it resolved?
My biggest concerns were readjusting to civilian life, replacing the camaraderie, and finding satisfying work. Life in the Army is dynamic, fast-moving, and full of exciting opportunities. You have to work to make that kind of life in the civilian world, so it is definitely a significant adjustment. I’m still adjusting. These days I take solace in continuing school, finding dynamic work environments in scientific research, and spending time with family.
Do you miss the military?
I absolutely miss the Army – the lack of camaraderie in my civilian life was the biggest downfall, followed by the static nature of the civilian environment. It’s a different life entirely. Serving is quite a privilege – I often thought of it as protecting those who can’t protect themselves. The military creates a special environment where the singular focus on the mission unites every person in uniform. Individual circumstances melt away, and you work together toward an ultimate good. That’s a purpose that’s tough to find when you take off the uniform.
Who is your main support now? Do you keep in touch with other veterans/active duty people?
I keep in touch with many old Army friends, and I meet other veterans often. My main support is my family, especially my husband, who I met at my last duty station. I’m also surrounded by a wonderful community here in Warrenton, including lots of good friends.
What do you see as the main issue(s) for veterans today?
I think the main issue for veterans today is readjusting to civilian society, and dealing with veteran-specific health needs. The groups that are specifically designed to assist veterans are incredibly important. I’ve met so many veterans who have had trouble 5, 10, 20 years out, readjusting to civilian life and their unique health problems – often they’ve had such physically and mentally traumatic experiences – even the researchers don’t have viable options to help them.
What do people need to understand about veterans?
Regardless of whether the general public have served or not, there is a sizable percentage who understand that we should support funding for veteran programs like housing, healthcare, and research. We’ve imposed such great sacrifices on these veterans – the least we can do is support them when they re-enter society. I think it’s of fundamental importance to provide unwavering legislative, regional, and local support.
What do you think is people’s perception of women veterans?
It seems most people are supportive regardless of gender. This is most certainly a consequence of being a later-generation soldier, but I have not encountered the discrimination or barriers of my predecessors as a product of being a female veteran. There’s a mountain to disentangle when it comes to being a female soldier, but veteran life has been, comparably, quite placid.