By Ellen McGirt
March 7, 2019

If you want to celebrate Women’s History Month, support military women and veterans.

Republican Sen. Martha McSally told the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday that she was raped by a superior officer while serving in the Air Force. The first-time Senator from Arizona was also the first woman in the Air Force to fly in combat. “I thought I was strong, but felt powerless,” McSally said during emotional testimony at a hearing about sexual assault in the military. “The perpetrators abused their position of power in profound ways.”

And then this: “Like many victims, I felt the system was raping me all over again,” she said. “But I didn’t quit, I decided to stay.”

McSally’s testimony is an important part of a broader effort to craft meaningful legislative changes addressing how the military deals with sexual assault cases. She brings with her some exceptional receipts: A history of military accomplishment and service, often in spite of a system she perceived was designed to protect the abusers over the abused.

And it is exactly that devotion to a complex culture that makes the experience of female veterans so important to understand, both as voters/advocates and as future employers/colleagues.

Sarah Maples, a former Air Force intelligence officer, Afghanistan veteran, and the director of National Security and Foreign Affairs at the Veterans of Foreign Wars, described the many challenges women veterans face when they leave the military in a recent essay for The Atlantic, “The Inconvenience of Being a Woman Veteran.”

The military requires women to behave and perform in traditionally masculine ways, she says, a strict cultural code that forces women to diminish parts of themselves to succeed. Assimilating to a post-military culture can be jarring.

And because women’s military service is largely uncelebrated, it’s demoralizing when civilians are surprised by their contributions, or assume, as many do, that they’re simply a military spouse or daughter. “This kind of exchange, where a woman’s connection to the military is assumed to be earned by another, most likely male, individual can be insulting and disheartening to a woman who has served,” she wrote.

“The perceived invalidation of a woman’s service can also feel as if her experiences during or related to her service, to include combat, service-connected disabilities, and sexual harassment/assault, are also invalidated,” says Maples. Often, they don’t seek the support services available to them or find that the services don’t meet their unique needs.

This comes at an unacceptable cost.

According to a variety of sources, including the Government Accountability Office, women who’ve served can find themselves in dire circumstances.

Women veterans are three to four times as likely as their civilian women counterparts to become homeless and 2.5 times more likely to commit suicide. Many were victims of military sexual trauma, known by its acronym, MST.

Yet the veterans who find a welcoming civilian career are often able to capitalize on their unique training and experience.

They bring confidence, courage, cognitive and emotional intelligence, and high competency to their new roles, says Mira Brancu, a psychologist who works for the Veterans Administration. “When it comes to women in leadership roles, remember that those who work in male-dominated industries must take on everything men take on but must work harder and perform better in order to receive the same recognition,” she says.

Point taken.

Which is all the more reason why it’s everyone’s job to make sure the women currently in the military have the safety and respect they need to serve admirably and are able to transition into civilian workplaces that are prepared to help them feel like they belong.

I’ve included an incomplete list of resources below. Hit me with anything you are doing that’s working and I’ll amplify.

Now, sit up straight and share this, soldier.

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Get Help. If you are or know someone who is a victim of MST, expect them or you to be experiencing additional trauma that’s specific to military service. RAINN, the anti-sexual violence organization, has got your back. They recommend the Department of Defense’s Safe Helpline, which provides live, one-on-one, and confidential support to the worldwide DoD community. Click here for more resources, including chat-based services, and an app that will let you create a customized self-care plan.

Get the Facts. The Past, Present and Future of Women Veterans is a trove of stats and info, compiled by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics

Get the Picture. In 2017, 29.7 percent of active duty military women were black, 19.57 percent were Hispanic, 4.8 percent were Asian, 1.6 percent were Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and 1.4 percent were Native American/Alaska Native.

Get Why. For decades, black women have joined the military at rates that far outnumber their representation in the civilian population. This comprehensive analysis published by The New England Journal of Public Policy shows why, complete with important cultural and socio-economic context.

Get Busy. The military is now almost 17 percent female! Here’s what they’re doing at work.

Get Hiring. Chris Crace, veterans advocacy leader at PwC, shared some excellent advice on how to help a veteran of any gender succeed in their civilian careers. Among his many tips: Assign in-house advocates who understand military culture to help new hires understand how to leverage their strengths and plan their paths. They can also run interference with hiring managers aren’t sure how to deal with a new recruit who may not hit every box on a skills or experience checklist.

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