SWAN advocates for all military women, in order to increase their visibility and access to equal protection, opportunities and benefits. Our public education campaign presents the human rights obstacles and realities that military women experience to both national and local audiences, and across a variety of media outlets.

Women in Combat

Despite a Congressional policy that bans women from participating in direct ground combat, the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have blurred the frontlines, thrusting servicewomen fully into combat roles. Additionally, commanders have rapidly realized the benefit of using servicewomen in missions that require close interaction with local Iraqi and Afghan populations. Both the Army and Marine Corps have evolved their use of women on the battlefield through the use of ad hoc Female Engagement Teams (FETs) and Lioness Teams, which are often tasked to work with combat arms units. Additionally, women are used daily in missions that entail high risk of direct fire, such as convoys with high exposure to Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs).

Over 250,000 women have served thus far in Iraq and Afghanistan (11% of the total troops deployed there). Women are fighting with distinction, earning some of the military’s highest awards, including the Silver Star. Countless women return home with invisible wounds, like PTSD and major depression, and related conditions like substance abuse, homelessness, and suicide. Women are more likely to suffer from Military Sexual Trauma (MST), compounding their risk of mental illness. Despite the changing roles of women in combat, many women still struggle to receive the same military awards and veterans’ benefits as their male peers. Congressional policy on banning women from direct ground combat must change in order to recognize women’s actual accomplishments on the battlefield.

Military Sexual Trauma

The Department of Defense (DOD) defines Military Sexual Trauma (MST) as rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. MST affects both women and men in uniform, but disproportionately affects women. Even by conservative standards, MST occurs at an epidemic rate. Institutional failure to protect troops who report MST has led to gross under-reporting of abuse across the armed forces. MST often leads to long-term debilitating psychological conditions, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and major depression. Moreover, veterans who have experienced MST face overwhelming obstacles when applying for disability compensation from the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA). Rejection by the VBA often leads to intense feelings of betrayal, triggering further trauma and illness among veterans with MST.

SWAN provides peer support, counseling referrals, and legal referrals to both male and female veterans who have experienced MST. SWAN also conducts extensive policy work on MST at the national level. To learn more about MST, see our fact sheet. The latest DOD report, FY2011 Annual Report on Sexual Assualt in the Military, is available HERE.

Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) Health Care and Benefits

VA Hospitals

The recent surge of women into the military has prompted the need for radical reform in VA’s services for women veterans. Only 15% of women veterans use VA facilities. VA culture is still rife with male-bias, leading many women veterans to feel that the VA cannot properly attend to their gender-specific health needs. A shortage of women physicians and mental health providers, Military Sexual Trauma Counselors, and women-only clinics and support groups prevent women from receiving the assistance they need. Furthermore, VA healthcare is characterized by its “fragmentation,” meaning that women are not able to access comprehensive health services from their primary providers but rather must be referred elsewhere or travel enormous distances for routine services such as gynecological exams. Additionally, VA hospitals often foster uncomfortable, unwelcoming or hostile environments for women. A supportive environment is essential for recovery, especially for servicewomen who have experienced trauma such as MST.

SWAN has advised numerous policy makers and testified before Congress on the variety of obstacles women veterans face at VA facilities.

VA Disability Claims

Women veterans face enormous hurdles in receiving “service-connected” disability compensation from the VA. The VA routinely rejects women’s mental health claims, regardless of diagnoses by VA health professionals. Veterans with MST-related illnesses experience additional challenges. Because of limited understanding about the causes of PTSD in women, current legislation favors veterans whose PTSD originated in combat, rather than from MST. VA requirements place an unrealistic, unfair, and discriminatory burden of proof on veterans who suffer from MST, because service members cannot safely report MST in the current military climate. Furthermore, formal investigations of sexual harassment are destroyed two years after they are filed, making it impossible to provide original evidence to the VA for a claim.

SWAN’s pro bono legal team helps women veterans appeal VA claims and receive the benefits they have earned for their sacrifices. SWAN is currently advising members of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs on removing gender-based barriers to claims awarding, and reducing discriminatory and ineffective requirements for claims submissions on survivors of MST.

Homeless Women Veterans

Women veterans are especially vulnerable to homelessness. Over 13,000 women veterans are homeless in the United States. Women veterans are more likely to be homeless than their male counterparts. One factor that increases their risk of homelessness is mental health conditions resulting from Military Sexual Trauma (MST), and VA records indicate 39% of homeless women veterans VHA users screened positive for MST compared to 22% of all women VHA users. Additionally, homeless women veterans with children have specific needs, including shelters that provide a safe and supportive environment for families. Only 60% of the VA’s homeless facilities are open to women. SWAN conducts local outreach to homeless women veterans and offers experienced peer support as well as referrals for gender-specific counseling, social services, and legal services. To learn more about homelessness among women veterans, see our fact sheet.

LGBT Service Members and Veterans

The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy prohibited openly lesbian, gay, or bisexual people from serving in the military. In practice, this policy disproportionately impacted women and people of color. Women make up 15% of the armed forces but accounted for over one-third of discharges under DADT in 2008. Similarly, racial and ethnic minorities made up almost half of DADT discharges in 2008. “Lesbian-baiting” affects all women in the military, regardless of sexual orientation (women who rebuke the sexual advances of men are labeled “lesbian” and thus risk being discharged from the military). Although DADT has been repealed, Current Equal Opportunity policy does not protect service members on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Therefore, sexual minorities have no protections from harassment or discrimination.

SWAN has changed the face of the LGBT movement by highlighting the unique voices and experiences of LGBT women veterans. SWAN educates policymakers about DADT and its effects on women, and also is taking the lead on educating the public about lack of Equal Opportunity (EO) protections for actual and perceived sexual minorities in the military. Please see our fact sheet for more information.