Invisible Battles – Forgotten Heroes.

Honoring Our Courageous Sisters in the United States Military.

When we hear the word “veteran” most of us conjure up the image of a man.

However, there are more than 210,000 women service members on active duty across the military services.

Throughout our nation’s history, women veterans have been ambulance drivers, mechanics, administrators and nurses. They have defied cultural norms and gender stereotypes by taking on military flight duties. Recently, women’s roles in the military have expanded to include assignments in combat units.

But these brave women rarely benefit from the traditional trappings of the hero returned home.

Women veterans are oftentimes marginalized and forgotten fighting an invisible battle their male counterparts aren’t– the battle against sexism and gender bias. This routinely places them at risk for victimization and isolation while deployed and then facing a host of additional challenges when they come home.

Yes, progress is being made, but clearly, more is necessary. But for that to happen, it’s important that we first become aware and educated about the unique challenges that confront female veterans. And then make sure our legislators are listening!

So today, on Veterans Day, remember to honor the woman heroes of this country who have served our country proud.  

Need help or know someone who does? Contact the VA crisis line now: 800-273-8255 and press 1  Text: 838255

SEXUAL ASSAULT AND HARASSMENT

Yeah, it’s still rampant. Despite prevention measures, the United States military is a culture that fosters sexual assaults and sexual harassment perpetrated by both peers and authority figures; this according to a 2020 study conducted by the Pentagon.

Twenty-three percent of women reported being sexually assaulted and fifty-five percent reported some form of sexual harassment.

As you might expect, the youngest and lowest-ranking women are most at risk. One third of women who were sexually assaulted were first sexually harassed. Harassment includes such behaviors as staring, gawking, making sexual jokes, sharing explicit images and repeated attempts at unwanted relationships.

“Not only are supervisors taking advantage of their junior troops, they are methodical about it.”

a female junior Army infantry soldier

One of the big obstacles toward change, according to Representative Jackie Speier of California, is that instead of creating an independent prosecutor for military sexual assault cases, authority over such cases remains in the hands of military commanders. 

It’s a bit like the fox guarding the hen house. As such, victims are often reluctant to come forward because they are afraid their case won’t be handled well, or they are afraid of retaliation. It is estimated that actual incidents of MSA is more than six times higher than reported. Let that sink in.

The long-term effects of military sexual trauma (MST) can’t be overstated.

MST is associated with numerous poor mental and physical health outcomes including depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, headaches, chronic difficulty readjusting after deployment, eating disorders, alcohol abuse and more.

Women veterans who experience MST are five to nine times more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

“I don’t know a woman in the military who hasn’t been sexually harassed. It’s just become so ingrained in our culture that some people don’t recognize it as harassment.”

Ellen Haring, CEO of the Service Women’s Action Network

DAMAGING STEREOTYPES

Men are rational thinkers and physically strong while women are emotional and physically weak. Women are nurturing and not effective leaders. Men are “mission oriented”, women are not. These pervasive stereotypes add to workplace hostility and may propagate systemic gender discrimination. 

Differences in physical ability between men and women has long been a point of contention, particularly with regard to women in combat roles.  But according to Captain Micah Ables of the Modern War Institute at West Point, “The US military’s combat arms branches do not need to ban women. They need to fix their standards problem. “Under current fitness standards based on age and gender, my thirty-seven-year-old former platoon sergeant must run two miles in 18:18 to pass with the minimum sixty points, but if one of our twenty-year-old privates were to take that long he would fail. Yet we were all expected to carry the same weapons perform the same tasks and go on the same patrols in Afghanistan. And yes, the current physical fitness standards for women are even more skewed than for old men.” 

“If you mess up even once, then you’re ostracized, and the mission matters more than people. And it really should be people first because if you take care of the people, the mission’s going to happen.”

female junior officer, Air Force

HOMELESSNESS AND SUICIDE

Women comprise the fastest-growing segment of the homeless veteran population according to a 2017  Housing and Urban Development report.

Female veterans who experience personal violence, including rape, are more than six times more likely to experience homelessness and six times more likely to commit suicide.

“You get into this free fall and you don’t know how to climb back out of it.”

female Airforce veteran

For younger women vets the risk of suicide is twelve times the rate of non-veteran women. Compare this to male veterans who have twice the rate of suicide over non-veteran males.

Women veterans take, on average, three months longer to find employment than male veterans after they leave the military.

And you guessed it, these women often earn less despite having the same skills enhanced by military service as their male counterparts.

More heartbreaking still, homeless women veterans may not report their homelessness or seek help out of fear they will be separated from their children by child services.

“I can’t tell them I’m homeless because I’m afraid  I’ll lose my child.”

female Navy veteran

The Department of Veterans Affairs has made homelessness a priority, but for years the outreach focused on the veteran, not on the family. But much still needs to be done.

“Homelessness isn’t just that guy on the park bench or in a tent city. Our primary means of survival are couch surfing, navigating from home to home until our welcome runs out so we can keep our children with us.”

female Army veteran

HUNGER

A 2018 study shows that women veterans are more likely to struggle with hunger than male veterans. The sad fact is, a whopping one out of four women veterans lacks the money or resources to reliably feed themselves or their children. Beyond an empty stomach, food insecurity is associated with serious and costly health problems that no veteran should have to experience. They fought for our country; they shouldn’t have to come home and fight hunger.

“I’m not going to let my kids go hungry even if II have to just eat once a day”

female Navy veteran

MOTHERHOOD

While there are some encouraging military resources in place that may support deployment for women, including family readiness groups and behavioral health services, not all of them provide for all the required needs and many of these services are more focused on deployed males.

When single mothers are deployed, there is even a greater degree of complexity. While the Army requires a family care plan that outlines the arrangements service members have made for their children during deployments, it is not legally binding. This leaves deployed mothers open to legal notices for increases in child support, custody changes, and caregivers who can no longer continue with childcare responsibilities.

“Life was definitely harder as a single mother in the army because it was used as ammunition against me. When I got cancer, I knew something was wrong. But I was told, ‘This is why women can’t hack it in the military, this is why women shouldn’t be in leadership positions’… The military tells you suck it up and drive on.”

female Army Major and cancer survivor

Need help or know a woman veteran who does? There are a number of helpful programs out there. Here are a few to get you started:

Women Veterans Call Center: The Women Veterans Call Center (WVCC) staff is trained to connect women Veterans, their families, and caregivers with VA services and resources, including questions about Veteran status, Veteran ID cards, and benefits.

Homelessness: https://www.va.gov/homeless/for_women_veterans.asp. Or contact the VA crisis line now: 800-273-8255 and press 1   Text: 838255

Military Sexual Trauma, Substance Abuse and PTSD: https://www.va.gov/health-care/health-needs-conditions/military-sexual-trauma/

Mental Health Crisis and Suicide Prevention: Contact the VA crisis line now: 800-273-8255, and press 1 Text: 838255

Hunger: Contact  Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/supplemental-nutrition-assistance-program