More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. These brave women sacrificed much to keep us safe. Now that they are home, our country has a solemn obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
Yet there is mounting evidence that America is not fulfilling this obligation. Based on currently available data, it is clear that our country isn’t fully meeting the unique physical, emotional and employment needs of women veterans. When they return home, they receive less support than their male counterparts from government programs primarily designed for men.
Today, nearly one in five women veterans has delayed or gone without necessary health care in the past year. One in 11 is unemployed. Former servicewomen experience homelessness at between two to four times the rate of their civilian counterparts.
It’s unacceptable that the women who honorably served our country-our mothers, spouses, sisters and daughters-are at risk. A new report released by my organization, Disabled American Veterans (DAV), finds that the federal, state, and community programs to support women transitioning out of military service have serious gaps that put some women veterans in jeopardy.
Consider medical care. Today, one-third of the Department of Veterans Affairs medical centers lack a staff gynecologist and 18 percent of VA clinics have yet to hire at least one doctor specializing in women’s health.
Mental health services for women are severely lacking. Twenty percent of female patients in the VA health system have been diagnosed with a condition resulting from military sexual trauma, which can have devastating, long-term consequences. Nonetheless, one in three VA health centers does not have enough sexual trauma specialists on staff.
We are not doing much better when it comes to helping women veterans gain post-military employment. Former servicewomen are highly skilled, with unique life experiences that give them valuable leadership qualities and the know-how to operate effectively in high-stress situations.
Yet the unemployment rate for female veterans has steadily climbed for most of the past decade. What’s more, two-thirds of women veterans report that the career service help offered by federal agencies has been sub-par.
These problems could soon get worse. The military has started on a major draw-down of personnel. As a result, more than 200,000 current servicewomen are expected to rejoin the civilian workforce in the next five years.
Now is the time for action.
In our new report, Women Veterans: The Long Journey Home, DAV outlines 27 recommendations that Congress, the Administration, VA and the Departments of Defense (DoD), Labor, and Housing and Urban Development can take to strengthen the safety net for women veterans.
For starters, veterans’ health centers must meet their obligation to provide specialists in women’s health. At a minimum, every VA medical center must hire a gynecologist. And, efforts to treat and help stamp out sexual assault within the military need to be expanded.
To help combat unemployment among women veterans, DoD must take a hard look at the primary program designed to help veterans transition to the civilian labor force: the Transition Assistance Program. The department does not collect data on participation, satisfaction, and outcomes by gender and race. Simply put, DoD cannot tell us if TAP actually helps women veterans successfully transition. Plus, VA and DoD need to develop career guidance programs specially designed for women veterans.
Thousands of women answered the call of duty and put themselves at risk to preserve our nation’s security. They served this country faithfully. Serving them with greater respect, consideration and care must become a national priority.
By Garry J. Augustine
Garry J. Augustine, a Vietnam-era combat-wounded Army veteran, is executive director of DAV’s Washington Headquarters.