Female veterans have come a very long way in the military over the past 50 years. Desert Storm/Desert Shield was a war attended to by many females.
Women have been involved in wartime activities since the Revolutionary War. During World War I, about 35,000 women served as nurses and support staff. In World War II, 140,000 women served in the U.S. Army and the Women’s Army Corps performing critical jobs such as military intelligence, cryptography, and parachute rigging. Over 1,000 women flew aircrafts for the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots. During the Vietnam War 7,000 American military women served in Southeast Asia. During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, more than 41,000 women were deployed to a combat zone. Today, over 700,000 women have served in Post 9/11 warzones, including Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. As of 2013, Women are now allowed to serve in combat positions, including Infantry, Armor, Cavalry, Fire Support, and Special Forces. However, just because women can now serve in combat positions does not mean that they didn’t see combat, and it wasn’t until 1948, that Congress passed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, granting females permanent status in the military, entitling them to Veteran’s benefits.
For nearly 73 years now, women have the same access to the resources offered by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs as their male counterparts, which begs the question; why do females have a harder time reintegrating back into civilian life than their male counterparts? According to Jodie Grenier, CEO of Foundation for Women Warriors, about 67% of women veterans find their financial transition from the military difficult, compared to 47% of men. And as more female troops transitioning from active duty to civilian life, they face unique challenges, such as lack of community of fellow female vets, lack of childcare assistance for single mothers and financial instability. These are all issues female veterans face. While some of these challenges affect all veterans, the issues are compounded for women because cultural stereotypes and the gender pay gap.
Peer to peer to support is sorely lacking where it is most needed, especially since 4 out of 10 females reported to VA hospitals that they experienced Military Sexual Trauma (MST) while in the service, and the vast majority of it goes unreported while they are still enlisted due to fear of reprisal, “slut-shaming”, and being seen as “weak”. Sustaining MST leaves females more likely to experience PTSD, and females often experience it differently than men. The standard checklists the VA asks you to fill out as procedure don’t always apply, which means women aren’t always getting the specialized help that they need. Suffering from sexual assault and/or PTSD can create a myriad of problems when left untreated such as drug or alcohol addiction, homelessness, crippling depression, and anxiety. Not only are returning service women nearly four times as likely as men to become homeless, but roughly 40% of those who experience homelessness also report having been sexually assaulted while in the military. (Natelson, 2010) PTSD is twice as prevalent in women (10.4%-12.3%) as it is in men (5.0%-6.0%), even if men are more likely to see combat. Why is this? Dr. Kathryn Magruder from Medical University of South Carolina believes the reasons are three-fold:
This is why the female-specific peer to peer support is something that must be corrected, because our needs are unique and must be treated as such. To sit in a support group with both men and women make women less likely to share, and those that do, less likely to be understood or taken seriously.
Particularly for female veterans, the combination of invisibility and isolation combine to create deadly consequences post-service. For instance, women veterans are 1.8% more likely than civilian women to commit suicide, and women who do not utilize the resources the VA offers have seen a 98% increase in suicide rates. Even though the current percentage of United States Veterans that are women is 10 percent, female veterans are often overlooked.
These brave women tend to fall through the cracks of the support systems that we have put in place for our veterans. The support system for veterans was designed by and is still dominated by men. The mental, physical, and military service needs of women are often very different from those of male veterans.
A study performed by the Disabled American Veterans found that the organizations and government agencies in charge of providing support for female veterans usually fail to understand the unique needs that women may have after being in the service and going through deployments.
With more women than ever joining the military and taking part in combat missions overseas, this misunderstanding is concerning for women Vets.
Deputy National Legislative Director for DAV, Joy J. Ilem, explained that “The number of women veterans is growing, and our country is simply not doing enough to meet their health, social, and economic needs."
Some stressful things that women might have experienced while deployed may include:
● Combat operations. Even though women are not necessarily trained for combat operations, they often participate in stressful and dangerous combat or combat-support missions. More women are receiving hostile fire, returning fire, and seeing casualties. These experiences can be particularly terrifying in an urban warfare situation like that in Iraq or Afghanistan. Many male and female Veterans continue to be bothered by these experiences after they have returned home.
● Military sexual trauma (MST). A number of women (and men) who have served in the military report experiencing MST. MST includes any sexual activity where a Service member is involved against his or her will, such as insulting sexual comments, unwanted sexual advances or even sexual assault. After experiencing MST, many women feel depressed or have other difficulties. To learn more, see Military Sexual Trauma: Issues in Caring for Veterans.
● Feeling alone. In a difficult operation, feeling part of a unified group is important to keeping your morale high. In some theaters of operation, personnel are deployed to new groups where they do not know the other Service members. It can take time to build friendships and trusting relationships in these groups. Not feeling supported can be very hard.
● Worrying about family. It can be particularly difficult for women with young children or elderly parents to be deployed for long periods of time. Service members are often given little notice and have to be away from home for a year or longer. Some women feel like they are "putting their lives on hold" and worry that they can't be watching over their loved ones. If there are troubles at home, both women and men in the field might start to feel overloaded. After returning home, some women find it is difficult to return to a parenting role and may find that they have more conflicts with their children.
Because of these stressors, many women who return from military service have trouble transitioning to civilian life. While most readjust after a period of time, a significant minority will go on to develop more serious conditions like PTSD. And that’s the difference between women and men. We absorb trauma differently, and therefore need to be treated differently.
The bottom line, is that we can do better. We have the statistics to back up the fact that we should be doing better. All we have to do is convince the men in charge that we are not, in fact, men, so we do not react as men do. If that were all that mattered, statistics could change their minds. The real issue here is that because we are women, and we don’t react the same as men, we must some how be weaker, or less than. When men finally realize that we have strengths they cannot possibly possess, perhaps then they will realize that we too deserve to be treated as the heroes that we are.
If you are having trouble adjusting to being in civilian life, there are resources to help you.
If you feel trapped in a situation and need help, reach out. Call Sarah
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