Women have served in the U.S. military since the Revolutionary War, but it wasn’t until 1988 that the Department of Veterans Affairs began offering medical and mental health services to female veterans.
Let that sink in.
Over 200 years of literal blood, sweat, and tears poured out on the battlefield in service to our nation with zero assistance for the lasting damage that accompanied them when (if) they returned home.
In 2020, Congress passed the Deborah Sampson Act (DSA) which many have been waiting for as a significant step toward more equitable and inclusive services for women through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
It includes provisions to address sexual harassment and assault in VA facilities and creates an Office of Women’s Health. It also seeks to improve access to care and benefits for survivors of military sexual trauma.
But it’s not enough.
It has taken 200 years for our leaders to realize and recognize what so many women lose when they give their lives in service to this country. The abuse, trauma, and outdated military practices our female service members put up with, only to be forgotten or ignored when they come home, is unacceptable.
The transition from the field back to civilian life is a notoriously difficult – even traumatic – one for all who serve. But it’s more challenging for female service members than their male counterparts for many reasons.
According to Syracuse University, it takes female service members 3 months longer to find employment after returning home. And when they do land a job? They’re paid 30% less than men in the same position. Only 24% of women leaving the military do so because they have completed their service – the rest leave due to loss of faith in the military, concerns and grievances about their experience, and the ever-present elephant in the room all women can relate to: “family reasons”.
During their time in the military, female service members are required to wear gear designed for male bodies. This causes undue stress on their necks, backs, and hips that can leave permanent damage. Their limited access to sanitary conditions means painfully higher incidence of UTIs during deployment.
If you’ve ever had a UTI, you know the last place you’d want to endure one is in a combat zone or on deployment where your access to medications and the ability to pee every five minutes is…limited.
Not to mention that the male-dominated service at-large means doctors and hospitals are ill-equipped to serve women and their unique anatomies and health concerns.
When they come home, they return to VA facilities that are not built to protect and care for female patients. Misunderstood, ignored, and underserved, these women end up seeking private pay care – or worse: no care at all.
Women returning from deployment and leaving active service also experience higher rates of homelessness in comparison to their male counterparts. They are four times more likely to become homeless. Difficulties finding employment coupled with lingering health problems and psychological trauma make it nearly impossible for some women to reintegrate into civilian life.
While the VA has taken steps in the last decade to target women – specifically those with children – for the services they need most, finding those women has proven challenging. We must do a better job of transitioning all women the moment they leave military service – not 6 months or a year later when they’re struggling and already unable to be found.
In 2018, Blue Star Families reported that female veterans were five times more likely than males to report “lack of childcare” as a stressor during their time of service. Women serving in the military are also mothers, spouses, and caregivers to older family members – in fact, these responsibilities are often cited as the primary reason for leaving military service.
Mothers returning to civilian life bring with them guilt and trauma accrued during their time away, only to be faced with the growth, changes, and emotional distress their children experienced during that same time. Women in the military experience higher divorce rates, and are more likely to be single mothers. There are not sufficient services to help families deal with separation and reintegration physically, emotionally, and psychologically. It’s an incredible disservice to our military mothers and their families, who deserve so much more.
Perhaps the most alarming and heartbreaking failure our female veterans endure is the high occurrence of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and subsequent PTSD.
Military Sexual Trauma (any sexual activity against one’s will and any repeated acts of sexual harassment) is the primary cause of PTSD in female service members, whereas combat is the primary cause for males.
MST all but ensures women will experience increased rates of self-medication via substance abuse, homelessness, and mental illness as well as higher frequency of dishonorable discharge & loss of benefits as retaliation.
Many women who report sexual assault and seek care often report experiencing a “second victimization” by those who are supposed to help them. Victim blaming, shaming, and gaslighting increase depression rates while minimizing women’s trauma.
- The VA reports that 1 out of every 3 women they see have experienced Military Sexual Trauma – we’re pretty sure the actual number is higher.
- It its estimated that only 25% of female service members who have experienced sexual assault and/or harassment are able to report it. Of those who do, an estimated 60% were assaulted by someone with a higher rank, and 25% were assaulted by someone within their chain of command.
- Women who did not report cite fear of retaliation and doubt that anything will be done about it as reasons for not reporting. Sadly, they are correct on both counts.
- Women who have served in the military are twice as likely as civilian women to die by suicide.
These statistics are sickening and an embarrassment to the “land of the free, home of the brave”. If women are willing to sacrifice their lives for this country the same way men do, then they should be afforded the same rights, protections, and benefits as their male colleagues. They are the fastest growing sub-group of U.S. Veterans, and these problems are not going to go away.
This Veterans Day we acknowledge the veterans who serve this country, and recognize their service and sacrifice deserve more.
We can and must do better.