The Invisible Veterans
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, one in four women seen at a VA health facility reports experiencing military sexual trauma while in service. Women veterans are the fastest growing segment of the homeless veteran population. One in five women veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. One third of women Veterans experience intimate partner violence, an increase from the already astounding number of one in four among civilian women. The rate of suicide is two and a half times higher among female veterans when compared to civilian adult females.
The plight of returning female veterans has not gone unnoticed. Helen Thorpe, author of “Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War”, wrote a moving Op-Ed for the New York Times about the dearth of services at VA hospitals for women veterans, and the pervasive sense they share that the system seems not even to acknowledge that they exist. Thorpe cites a study published last year by Disabled American Veterans, a nonprofit and advocacy group that chronicles the many challenges women face when they leave military service, including access to health care, readjustment benefits and employment assistance.
The VA is responding. It recently launched a social media awareness campaign featuring the military and social contributions of women veterans and providing information about how they can access a range of benefits and services. A Women Veterans Call Center has also been created, where female veterans can learn more about services available to them.
In my conversations with professionals working in this sphere, the importance of creating gender-specific interventions to support our female veterans is a constant refrain. According to Jennifer Friedberg, the Women Veterans’ Program Manager at the Manhattan campus of the VA NY Harbor Healthcare System, “Some women Veterans, particularly those who have sexual violence or military sexual trauma histories, worry about privacy and respect from male Veterans when they come to VA medical centers. For this reason, at, we feel it’s essential to provide clinical and mental health services in an environment that’s sensitive and safe for women Veterans. This means that whenever possible, we offer women Veterans the option of having a woman provider and we make private treatment rooms available in the Women’s Health Clinic and Emergency Department.”
I am with NYLAG as an Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by Greenberg Traurig, LLP and Greystone & Co., Inc. Equal Justice Works is a national leader in creating public interest opportunities for law students and lawyers. I am part of NYLAG’s LegalHealth division, which partners with medical professionals across the city, including VA hospitals, to address the legal needs of low-income individuals with serious health problems. We are establishing new legal clinics exclusively for women veterans at the VA Hospitals in Manhattan and the Bronx. (Our first informational session, held on December 12, was attended by 30 women who had so many questions that the hour-long session ran over by half an hour.) The clinics are designed to provide holistic care to women veterans and a safe space where they can receive the legal help they need. As a survivor of trauma, I know firsthand the importance of having support networks that will serve as a voice for those who are unable to access justice.
Many veterans who survived military sexual trauma were given less than honorable discharges as a result of “bad behavior” or in retaliation for reporting their assaults. This can render a veteran ineligible for VA healthcare. For some, their status means they cannot secure a job, leading to housing instability and, for many, homelessness. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that 39,471 veterans are homeless on any given night, and roughly 3,500 of these veterans are women. By helping them apply for a discharge upgrade, we can help many of these women access the healthcare and financial compensation they need to get back on their feet. Veterans with honorable or general discharges can apply for compensation for service-connected disabilities such as PTSD. Additionally, current VA policy states that survivors of military sexual trauma can receive care at a VA hospital, regardless of discharge status, but many women veterans are unaware of the resources that may be available to them. Thanks to our collaboration with the healthcare providers at VA hospitals we can help them know when their patients may have a legal remedy to their problems, and to better understand common issues faced by their patients.
Vice President Joe Biden recently described caring for our veterans as our “one sacred obligation”. As the number of women service members returning to civilian life increases, we cannot ignore the hurdles they face. This past Veteran’s Day was the first to take place following the lifting of the ban on women participating in ground combat. It is now more important than ever to address the needs of this growing part of the veteran community, and assure that they are not forgotten.