The struggle continues for female veterans

By Vanessa Thomas

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Post 9/11 veterans have been returning from their service over the last decade to a country that isn’t entirely prepared to meet all of their needs, specifically women veterans of color, veterans advocates say.

According to the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics, there are currently more than 213,000 women in the “active component” of the armed forces and about 190,000 women in the reserves and National Guard. Women make up 16 percent of the active duty officers in the services.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs states that in 2014, 22 percent of military veterans were minorities and 8 percent were women. Of that 8 percent, 33 percent were minorities with blacks taking the lead at 18 percent and Hispanics following with 8 percent.

Despite the increase of minority women in the military, the services provided for them when they return to civilian life are still inadequate. According to the African American Policy Forum, black women “suffer disproportionately to both black men and white women from the effects of America’s poor support of our veteran population.”

The severity of impediments that female veterans face can vary, yet they all affect them negatively, and minority female veterans even more so. Examples are fighting to be respected by their peers during their service, being recognized as a veteran and finding adequate assistance, and dealing with post traumatic stress disorder and military sexual trauma.

Cortni Alexander, a student at Western Washington University and a veteran who served in the Navy for four years, experienced difficulties while in the military due to the combination of her race and gender.

When Alexander and her best friend, who is also black, made rank after passing a difficult test called the Physical Readiness Test, an issue developed with their peers not willing to respect the rank they made because they were all relatively the same age.

Her friend is still in the military.

“One of our sailors thought that in my absence he was going to call my friend the ‘n’ word,” Alexander said. “It was disrespectful and it was insubordination because she was a higher rank than him.”

The brass at the time didn’t punish that sailor, which was a problem for Alexander. As a result she punished him when she returned. This just added to the tension, but Alexander believes that had the races been reversed, there wouldn’t have been any sort of hesitation in punishing him.

Alexander entered the Navy with a no-nonsense approach, as did Alfie Alvarado, the current and first female director of the Washington State Department of Veteran Affairs, when she served in the Army from 1971-1993.

“There are things that my mother taught me as far as friends and working with people volunteering, that kept me very busy and at the same time developed for me a certain amount of credibility that if someone was going to mess with me, they had to think about it twice,” Alvarado said.

Despite Alvarado’s approach, many women do not have the same mindset. In a statement on sexual assault in the military given by then Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on Dec. 4, 2014, he said that in the military “over 60 percent of women who reported a sexual assault perceived some kind of retaliation, often in the form of social retaliation by co-workers or peers.”

Experts said this discourages women from speaking up, and creates a cycle of abuse.

Alexander noted that in order for veterans to get disability compensation benefits, there has to be a paper trail. But how would there be documentation of an event that was not reported because the women might have been too scared of retaliation?

According to the American Psychological Association, “PTSD often co-occurs with other psychological conditions, such as depression, anxiety disorders, and substance-use disorders” and that “MST has become an important risk factor for PTSD.” The APA also states that women veterans who have a history of MST are nine times more likely than women veterans who have never been sexually assaulted to develop PTSD.

Untreated, PTSD can lead to other severe situations, such as suicide. VA officials said in 2014 the risk for suicide among female veterans was 2.4 times higher when compared to U.S. civilian adult females. The APA reported that “veterans who screened positive for PTSD were 4 times more likely to report suicidal ideation than veterans who did not, and the likelihood of suicidal ideation was 5.7 times greater in veterans who screened positive for PTSD …”

Though Alvarado understands that there is still a long way to go in terms of creating safe spaces for women and creating benefits specific for women, big improvements have been made. Some eight or nine years ago, Alvarado formed the Women Veteran’s Advisory Committee. The committee is made up of veterans and veteran allies to look at where the gaps are in services and find solutions to bridge those gaps.

“Little by little the services to women have been beefed up and there are women providers so we choose to do more gender sensitive care,” Alvarado said. “I believe that there have been significant advances when it comes to being able to provide all of the services like mammograms, even maternity services.”

Another issue. according to Alvarado, is that there are a lot of women who served in WWII and the Korean War who are now in their late 70s and 80s who do not believe that they are veterans.

“That’s the message I’m trying to get out to our communities,” Alvarado said. “It could be the difference between staying in their home and being able to be independent or living with their kids or having to sell out and downsize to a smaller place because they could have got some assistance with paying property taxes or some additional pension.”

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