On October 22, 2011, I had the pleasure of moderating the “Women’s Issues Forum” at the Veterans and Military Families for Progress (VMFP) 2011 National Conference held in Arlington, VA. It was a great opportunity to raise awareness about the current challenges women veterans face upon their reintegration into civilian life as well as the critical needs of women currently serving in the military and that of their families. Having worked for SWAN’s Peer Support Helpline until recently, I felt committed to voicing the concerns raised by our clients, who play such an important role in informing the policies for which SWAN advocates.
Panelists each had 5-10 minutes to introduce ourselves and highlight the work that we’re doing. I gave an overview of SWAN, using the mission and vision statements as a basis to explain what SWAN does. Other panelists were:
Kayla Williams (author, Love My Rifle More Than You)
Linda Kreter (founder of VeteranCaregiver.com)
Pamela Stokes Eggleston (Development Director of Blue Star Families)
Audience members were very engaged, asking many questions and sharing their own experiences as veterans or military family members. We discussed a range of topics, spanning from the positive effect of the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) on service women, being that they have been disproportionately affected by the policy, to women veterans’ varied experiences at VA Medical Centers (VAMC).
The panelists were in agreement that certain challenges of reintegration disproportionately affect women veterans, such as homelessness, being a single parent or sole caregiver, or not being recognized or credited as a veteran at all. Other important points included that women are less likely to identify as veterans, which serves as a barrier to accessing military-oriented supportive services for which they are eligible, especially at the VA. Women veterans also face unique obstacles to filing successful claims, not only in the case of post-traumatic stress disorder due to military sexual trauma but also as a result of the combat exclusion policy.
We discussed how the VA must do a better job of meeting women veterans’ medical and psychiatric needs. Too many veterans have stories of being re-traumatized at VAMCs and going to understaffed Vet Centers. Panelists presented slightly different viewpoints. Concerns were raised that criticism of the VA must be constructive, cautioning that if critics are too vocal, women will be dissuaded from going to the VA, thereby causing client numbers and funding to dwindle. I added that multiple studies show that women are going to the VA at the same rate as men. From my perspective, the real concern is whether VA care is at a level where women vets will want to return. In light of extremely high health care costs, the choice many veterans are making is between VA care and no care at all. We both agreed that the VA should focus on successful models of care and replicate those models at the national level – to include promoting and showing support for those VAMCs and Vet Centers that are the gold standard.
The final topic addressed by the panel was one of the most important of the day: the urgent need for the Department of Defense to fix the way sexual assault is being handled in the military. One audience member, who works in the field of corrections, asked why so few military investigations into allegations of sexual assault result in trials or convictions. Moreover, why is the rate of such trials and convictions significantly lower than in the civilian legal system? All panelists weighed in on this point, recognizing that the military is taking some steps to address what essentially is a crisis situation for many service women as well as men. Nevertheless, the reality that military leadership at the unit level has the leverage to handle reports of sexual assault in informal ways is unconscionable. In far too many cases, substantiated instances of rape were never treated as a crime.
Coming together from our varied perspectives as veterans, caregivers, and service providers, the panelists provided a fuller picture of the issues women face as a result of their connection to the military – fuller than any one of us could have provided individually. My experience speaking with these strong women and audience members prompted me to think about the ways that women can come together, not only as a community of women veterans but also in partnership with the spouses who are equally affected by war, the struggles of motherhood, and the isolation that often is a part of women’s lives in the military.