Nonprofits Meeting the Unique Needs of Women Veterans

woman vet

After 10 years of war, some of us in the nonprofit community are focusing on the unique needs of our women veterans. I should say that we are beginning to recognize that such a focus is needed—indeed essential—if we are to truly care for the impressive women who serve in our armed forces.

Today nearly 400,000 women serve in the military. Approximately 200,000 women are veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. One hundred and forty-four women have died in service to our country and nearly 800 have come home injured from these wars with wounds that we can see. Many of this generation's female veterans are—understandably—returning with invisible wounds including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress. In addition, some are coming home with undiagnosed traumatic brain injuries and difficult-to-explain physical ailments. All of these injuries—those seen and not—affect relationships, self-esteem, and the ability to lead the healthy productive lives that our women veterans deserve.

Our focus on military women comes not a moment too soon, as these women are unlikely to shine a light on their own needs, no matter how many struggle upon return and fail to receive appropriate services.

Members of the military rarely complain and rarely ask for help, preferring instead to serve others. Women in the military have additional reasons to minimize the challenges they face, the difficulties they encounter, and the pain they suffer. Women in the armed forces exist in a heavily male-dominated culture where they are required to park their femininity at the door. They must "man up" if they want to advance. While the military has become more appreciative of the value of women as strategic thinkers, as skilled technicians, and as leaders, it has not welcomed women into its ranks easily or comfortably. And the women who choose to serve are well aware of this reality as well as the sacrifices required in order to succeed in the military community.

At a recent gathering that focused on issues affecting returning troops and their families, I spoke with a female veteran about the unique challenges confronting her sisters in arms. She expressed concern for many of the young soldiers she has known. She talked about her efforts to bond with and care for these young women—her attempts to support them as they experienced the brutality of war. My friend spoke of encouraging her female soldiers to share their fears and struggles, as well as their accomplishments, with her and with one another, often while they sat in her tent painting their toenails. While painting toenails may seem like a superficial activity to most, military women recognize this activity as one of a handful of purely feminine activities that female service members can engage in during deployment. Painted toenails cannot be seen under combat boots.

My friend also spoke about an ugly reality for many women veterans—one that is now being acknowledged and addressed within the military community: military sexual trauma (MST). The Department of Veterans Affairs defines MST as "psychological trauma, which in the judgment of a VA mental health professional, resulted from a physical assault of a sexual nature, battery of a sexual nature, or sexual harassment which occurred while the Veteran was serving on active duty or active duty for training." Sexual harassment is further defined as "repeated, unsolicited verbal or physical contact of a sexual nature which is threatening in character."

The National Center of Post-Traumatic Stress reports that 1 in 5 women who are seen by the Veterans Health Administration answer "yes" to questions designed to screen for MST. This does not mean that 1 in 5 female service members experience MST; rather, of those women who seek care through the VA, 1 in 5 have experienced this type of trauma.

While these numbers are striking and distressing, they are not surprising to those of us in the mental health community who study the mental health consequences of war on those who serve and their families. The environment of war creates a culture of fear, aggression, and brutality for those who must endure it. While there is no justification or excuse for a man's sexually harassing or assaulting a woman, we can and must understand the issues and circumstances that often influence men who under normal circumstances would never engage in such inappropriate and barbaric acts. If we fail to understand the perpetrators, we will fail to protect future victims.

And what of the women veterans who do experience military sexual trauma? Theirs is a complicated story indeed. In addition to the pain and humiliation of the experience itself, these women often find themselves in situations that require them to continue to work with or for their abusers. They feel pressure from a culture that requires loyalty to one's unit and strict adherence to the chain of command. What do you do if the person above you in that chain is the one who committed the assault? My friend shared countless stories of the pain and suffering of woman veterans who experience MST and are devastated by feelings of shame, guilt, and betrayal.

So what do our women veterans need and how can we provide them with the support and care they deserve? Some things we know: they need acknowledgement and respect, and they need programs specifically designed to address their unique challenges and concerns. We also know that we need additional research to better understand their challenges—and to better understand the best mechanisms to deliver effective services to them. Much needs to be done.

The Fatigues to Fabulous™ (F2F) Campaign (www.fatiguestofabulous.com) that launched in New York City on September 8 is a critical step in accomplishing our mission to properly care for the women who serve our country. This campaign, which combines the flash and power of the fashion industry with the knowledge and expertise of organizations serving the military community, will raise awareness and harness the resources needed to move this effort forward.

These efforts will begin the conversation—and the work—that must take place as we move from a general understanding and approach (a one-size-fits-all tendency) to a more sophisticated and ultimately effective strategy to address the specific needs of groups within our military community. This is an interesting challenge: to work within a culture that strives for uniformity and standardization, a culture that focuses first and foremost on the mission, the unit, the service and rarely on the unique needs of those who serve.

And yet, we must take the time to understand the individual soldier, airman, sailor, and marine. What are their unique experiences, challenges, and needs as they return to our communities? Each one of these men and women made a commitment to serve our nation and we must make a commitment to provide for each one of them as they come home.

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