When President Barack Obama announced that he would be bringing back the 33,000 troops serving in Afghanistan by the summer of 2012, the news was welcomed with great anticipation. And while this announcement caused military families across the nation to breathe a sigh of relief, for many soldiers coming back home, their battles will be far from over.
This is particularly true for women soldiers with physical and mental wounds of war, as transitioning back into civilian life is wrought with uncertainties and a lack of adequate resources available to address their specific needs. Female military members make up about 15 percent of our active armed forces, and a report released in December 2010 by the Veterans Administration’s Office of Inspector General found that women soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have a more difficult time reintegrating back into society and are more likely to be diagnosed with mental-health conditions than male soldiers.
“For any veteran, it is a very tough time, going from war, being with people who understand what it’s like and what you’re going through to feeling almost alone and not understood by anyone,” said J. Ashwin Madia, Interim Chairman of VoteVets.org, a veteran advocacy group. “Less than one percent of America has served in the wars we’re in, and even fewer women. So, for women to re-enter society, it can be a very solitary experience. Homelessness is also a huge issue and there’s a very strong link between PTSD and homelessness among veterans of all generations.”
Out of the 150,000 women who have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2002, 23 percent of them are African-American. Sydney Lee, the president of the African American PTSD Association, says that black women in combat zones have higher rates of PTSD, and they are often victims of assaults that are never reported. With only 15 Veterans Affairs centers across the country providing residential mental-health treatment specifically for women with PTSD, is the nation adequately prepared to serve the unique needs of this population, and help them make a successful transition back to the lives they once knew?
“Reintegration is difficult for all veterans,” adds Colleen Corliss, communications manager at the Iraq veterans program for Swords to Plowshares. “For those suffering from PTSD, military sexual trauma or other mental illness from service, the average wait time for an initial decision for disability benefits and proper treatment is 161 days, which is plenty of time for a veteran’s life to spiral out of control.”
Veterans who don’t seek timely medical or psychological intervention often numb their pain by using drugs or alcohol, which usually leads to more problems like homelessness and suicide. Corliss adds that women veterans are two to three times more likely to commit suicide than non-veteran women.
Unemployment is another issue for soldiers returning back home. A report released by the U.S. Census Bureau in April 2011 found that “Post 9/11 veterans may face temporary employment problems as they first enter the labor market after their military enlistment ends due to imperfect knowledge of the civilian job market and difficulty translating military skills into civilian terms for employers.”
The lack of transferable skills can cause a veteran to be unemployed for some time, and this can contribute to them being homeless, which is four times more likely for women veterans than for non-veterans. When June Moss left the military, she was faced with a similar dilemma. Moss, who served as a driver and mechanic in Iraq, was recently profiled in Time magazine, and in the article, she talks about the difficulties that she had while transitioning to civilian life. As a single mother of two children who was suffering from PTSD but was yet to be diagnosed, she couldn’t find a job outside of the military and her home went into foreclosure. She and her children were left homeless, and out of desperation, Moss tried to commit suicide.
Though she eventually turned her life around with the help of a local Veterans Affairs (VA) clinic, Moss’ story speaks volumes about the challenges that women veterans face as they try to reintegrate back into society. The lack of adequate resources available for women veterans only contributes to the problem. Of 144 VA medical centers, only 37 percent have a gynecologist on staff. And even though the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has 500 community homeless shelters, 300 accept women, and only seven are designated to provide accommodations for families.
“Only a handful of VA Medical Centers have women-specific clinics, which is very troubling to many women veterans, not only when it comes to basic women’s health needs such as gynecological exams, but also in regard to mental health,” said Corliss. “Many residential treatment programs for veterans with substance dependence, PTSD or dual diagnosis are not designed for families. Unlike male veterans, many women are not accessing the services and benefits they need to successfully transition to civilian life. Instead, they are relying on systems of care that aren’t always equipped to address their veteran-specific needs. Safe, appropriate resources and facilities are needed.”
African-American women with PTSD often face greater challenges. In “War on Many Fronts: African American Veterans with PTSD: For Veterans and Family” an educational video released by the Department of Veteran Affairs, Terri, a former Marine and mother of two, talks about her experience while serving in Desert Storm.
“I wasn’t sure if they weren’t used to dealing with females and I just happened to be an African-American female, if it was just that they were infantry officers,” she said. “I don’t—I’m not certain. But I did receive some unfair treatment.”
Terri was placed in a graves and registration unit, where she had the grim task of looking through body parts to identify soldiers. A year later she was sexually assaulted by a commanding officer. Upon returning home, she didn’t tell anyone about her experience and delayed treatment to focus on her family, but it put a strain on her home life. After finally opening up and telling her primary care doctor about her symptoms, she was recommended for treatment for PTSD, which changed her life dramatically.
Moss and Terri’s story serve as a reminder that access to supportive VA services can change the trajectory of a veteran’s life. And although there is still much work to be done in providing adequate housing and mental-health assistance to women veterans in need, the VA system is taking the necessary steps to improving the way they help soldiers heal from the wounds of war.
“The current administration and VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki have made some tremendous progress in improving they systems of care veterans and their families rely on, including for women veterans,” said Corliss.
“The VA absolutely can and should do more to help all veterans,” adds Madia. “And, there’s a lot they can do better. But I want to stress that the people who work at the VA are great people, and do heroic work for not a lot of pay. When veterans are polled, they consistently say they like their VA care when they use it. So, this is not an issue of the people at the VA. This is an issue of policy makers, and their commitment to veterans. The VA can only do so much with what they have. It’s up to our leaders to commit more money for new programs and money to build more VA centers that serve rural areas. One of the true highlights of the Obama administration is how the VA has become a much better agency, and now we just have to expand that commitment.”
In the meantime, women veterans can also turn to nonprofit organizations like San Francisco-based Swords to Plowshares, which is helping to fill the void left by the VA system. Swords operates three supportive housing programs for veterans in the San Francisco area, including women veteran-only apartments for transitional housing, and the organization also provides counseling and case management, employment and training, housing and legal assistance.
An adequate support system is absolutely necessary for a veteran to be able to transition back into society, says Anu Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women’s Action Network, a female veterans’ advocacy group in New York City, and she adds that in addition to access to appropriate healthcare facilities, it is important to remember that simple acts of kindness and acceptance can help make a world of difference in a soldier’s journey back to normalcy.
“We all need to understand where these soldiers are coming from and that reintegrating themselves back into civilian life is quite difficult,” she said. “We just need to be patient and compassionate with our veterans who are coming back from combat. Be sensitive to their needs, and recognize what they’re dealing with. And above all welcome them, as it takes a village to help a veteran navigate through their way back home.”