Women in the Military and Female Veterans

Providing sufficient resources for the female veteran population in this country has been an uphill battle for decades, but after an episode on issues facing women in the military aired on the Oprah Winfrey Show this October, their plight has gained national attention.

Since the show aired, message boards and chat rooms alike have been all abuzz. Reaction from civilian and non-military viewers has been one of surprise at the lack of resources available to female veterans. For those military viewers and their families who are fully aware of these issues, they are upset that it took a TV talk show for people to take interest. 

The focus of the episode was on homeless, female veterans and active-duty servicewomen who are engaged in custody battles over their children. But, women in uniform, past and present, have many struggles to contend with such as:

  • Homelessness
  • Custody battles
  • Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Military sexual harassment and sexual trauma, and
  • Unfair gender treatment

These are all serious issues challenging the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Women in the Military – a Slow Acceptance

Women have served valiantly in America’s wars and conflicts throughout our nation’s history, but were not formally recognized under military command until the early part of the 20th century. However, even though it is now nearly 100 years later, and there are more women in the military than ever before, there are still few resource programs available to them. Given that the military is male-dominated, the transition away from what I view as an archaic, gender-specific norm of years past has taken on a slow acceptance.

So, what is the VA doing to combat women-specific issues that have been on the rise over the past decade?  In my view as a female veteran, the VA has the opportunity to do more in return for the sacrifices women have given to military service.

Women Veterans and Homelessness

Tammy Duckworth, assistant secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs for the VA, spoke out on the Oprah show about homeless women veterans saying that their numbers have doubled in the last decade. She pointed out that “female soldiers are two times more likely to become homeless than male veterans, and they are more likely to bring children into homelessness with them.”

She said there are at least 6,500 female veterans sleeping in cars or on the streets every night because there are only a small fraction of available beds reserved for them in order to accommodate the overwhelming number of homeless male veterans. There just isn’t enough space for everyone.

However, Duckworth did say that the VA started an initiative 18 months ago to cut down homelessness among veterans, both male and female, and that since the initiative’s inception, homelessness among the veteran population had decreased from 137,000 to 107,000. The VA’s goal is to eliminate homelessness among veterans within five years. It’s a start.  In the meantime, all veterans should have beds.

Women Veterans and Custody Battles

The show also put a spotlight on how female soldiers are losing custody battles for their children because of their deployment to overseas assignments. While deployments are an understood condition of the job, why would serving our country be synonymous with child abandonment?

It is appalling that women in military service are being stripped of their parental rights because they aren’t home, even though the reason is because they’ve been deployed to foreign countries. For single moms, they are given this ultimatum:  find a caretaker for the duration of your deployment or sign separation papers from service and risk an “other than honorable” discharge from the military.

A parent should never have to choose between her military career and her children. Family court proceedings in some states won’t even recognize military service as an excuse for not being in court.  Moms in the military are penalized for serving their country by taking away their children. It’s happening every day. And, the military has offered little to no recourse.

Women Veterans and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

What about the effects of war-related trauma exposure on servicewomen?

More women in the military are being deployed than ever before and are serving right alongside their fellow servicemen in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are driving trucks, flying helicopters and jets, and working as medics and military police officers.

The trauma of war is not gender biased. Women are suffering too, but may not show it in the same way as men.  Though the majority of trauma studies have largely focused on male veterans, some research is being done now to better understand how women’s exposure to traumatic events in the military is impacting their mental health.  

Surveys show that:

  • women recover more slowly and are four times more likely to develop chronic PTSD than men;
  • women more frequently experience psychological reactivity to stimuli rated to the trauma than men;
  • women exhibit a restricted effect and have an exaggerated startle response in comparison to men;
  • women are more likely to have symptoms of numbing and avoidance rather than the typical irritability and impulsivity features in male soldiers with PTSD.

Perhaps the VA needs to do more research to understand how to medically treat women service members with PTSD and to properly rate them for disability benefits.

Women Veterans and Military Sexual Assault

Are female soldiers more likely to experience military sexual trauma than male soldiers?

The National Comorbidity Survey reports that between 17 and 34 percent of women in the United States experience rape during their lifetime.  A survey of active-duty personnel reveals that 78 percent of women soldiers experienced sexual harassment and six percent had experienced rape, compared to 38 percent and one percent of military men, respectively.

Of course the proverbial questions come up:  Are women more often the victims of sexual assault or are they just more likely to report it?

I say, the statistics are high enough for the military to take more action on preventing sexual harassment and military sexual trauma from happening.

Women Veterans Deserve Equitable Treatment from the VA

The numbers are what they are – there will always be more men in the military than women. Regardless, women soldiers and women veterans deserve benefits and resources to help them, just as their male counterparts do. Women dealing with homelessness and child-custody battles that came to light on the Oprah show, as well as PTSD, in-service sexual assault and trauma, and gender inequities in the military are seriously real issues that need real solutions.

There are more women than ever before serving in the military, and the numbers are growing. As time goes by, women will make up an even larger percentage of the veteran population. The VA’s attention must not divert away from solving what appears to be a large, gender biased gap in benefits and opportunities for female soldiers and veterans.   

Though the VA seemingly recognizes mistakes decades afterwards (radiation exposure; herbicide exposure; reception of Vietnam soldiers), I hope this will not happen to my fellow women veterans.  

Note: All representation coordinated by Alpha is provided by our employees, the Advocates, who are accredited by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). No private organization that trains and employs accredited agents has been legally recognized by the VA for the purposes of preparation, presentation, and prosecution of claims. This work must be done by the Advocates themselves and not organizations.