Athena McDowall decided to join the New Jersey Army National Guard while she was in high school, and she went on to serve for four years.
“I did it to pursue my educational goals but also to do something different from those around me,” she said. “I wanted to have a new experience to give me a challenge and a new way of looking at life.”
While serving, McDowall struggled with an eating disorder. Today, she is a therapist in West Deptford, New Jersey, where she helps other veterans facing mental health battles.
She also volunteers with Philadelphia NEDA (National Eating Disorder Association) and is the vice president of the board of directors for SEA WAVES. Working with both nonprofits allows her to raise awareness of eating disorders in the military and help veterans and active-duty service members gain access to treatment resources.
As an advocate for the SERVE Act, a piece of legislation to help military personnel and their dependents gain access to treatment, McDowall agreed to be interviewed about her experience. She found that sharing her story was a special way to make a difference.
“I received a message thanking me,” she said. “The sender struggled with an eating disorder in the military and felt alone because no one else ever came forth to talk about it. Their experience reminded me of the importance of the work I’m doing.”
McDowall also devotes her time to the Middlesex County Veterans Diversion Program. As a veteran mentor, she helps fellow service members who have been arrested for nonviolent offenses find the help or treatment they need to build a more positive future.
McDowall believes that by showing individuals they are not alone in their struggles and giving them space to open up, they will feel their voice has been heard. And that is what motivates her to continue #StillServing in so many ways.
“I truly feel as though I’m making a positive impact in the military community,” she said.