We need to consider the unique challenges facing women vets
Women are America’s fastest-growing demographic of veterans, filling more combat positions and enlisting in larger numbers than at any point in history. From 2000 to 2019, women active-duty service members increased by 12.1%, and women reserve service members increased by 14.9%, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
However, women warriors are facing significant challenges during their transitions to civilian life, according to our 2021 Annual Warrior Survey. Women veterans feel largely invisible. Nearly 91% of women warriors registered with WWP agreed that civilians don’t understand their experience. Over 17% of the 18,000 post-9/11 WWP warriors who completed this survey were women, and eight out of 10 of them had deployed at least once.
While many veterans face challenges after service regardless of gender, female veterans experience unique challenges in areas such as employment and health-related issues.
According to the survey, though women warriors were more likely to have attained higher education than male warriors, they earn on average $100 less weekly than their male counterparts. The data also shows that 16% of WWP women warriors are unemployed compared to 13% of male warriors.
The “National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report,” released in September 2021, shows suicide rates for women veterans have increased more than rates for men. WWP survey participants also said they were significantly more likely to report feeling lonely when compared to their male counterparts.
More women than men experience military sexual trauma (MST). The WWP survey found that 67% of female warriors and about 6% of male warriors have experienced MST. The rate of sexual assault experienced by WWP women warriors is 2.5 times higher than women in the general U.S. population.
When asked about their experiences trying to receive care at the Veterans Affairs Department (VA), WWP women warriors reported challenges that include “not enough access to women’s services,” “lack of sensitivity to women’s needs,” and “the VA is too far away.”
Policymakers have responded to many calls for action. In 2020, Congress passed the Deborah Sampson Act which helps reform the way VA delivers care and services to women veterans. However, Congress can and should do more to positively affect the lives of thousands of women who rely on the VA for their physical and mental health care needs.
Our recent testimony before the House and Senate Veteran Affairs Committees outlined several strategies, including:
- Improving the accessibility and ubiquity of women’s health care by increasing resources for essential services, adapting facility operations, and optimizing channels of care like telehealth and the Community Care Network (the VA’s direct link with community providers to ensure veterans receive timely, high-quality care).
- Providing more coordination across agencies and disciplines to improve awareness, access to benefits, and quality of care for MST survivors.
- Strengthening social support through programs that facilitate women-veteran specific peer connection, mentorship, and professional networks; and streamlining connections to VA benefits and care.
- Improving programs and services that educate and assist women warriors up to and after they begin meeting their financial goals. This can include reforms to the VA claims process to ensure injuries and illnesses most reported by wounded women veterans are covered or addressed.
- Ensuring VA creates a safe and welcoming environment by evaluating the physical layouts and utilization patterns of VHA facilities to assess and improve the safety, convenience, and overall ease of access by women veterans.
One important step is for Congress to pass the Servicemembers and Veterans Empowerment and Support Act (S. 3025, H.R. 5666), and H.R. 2724, the VA Peer Support Enhancement for MST Survivors Act.
At Wounded Warrior Project, we advocate for all warriors, provide them with life-changing programs and services, and connect them with each other and their community. We’re committed to helping amplify the voices of women as the fastest-growing population of veterans. However, no one organization can do it alone.
Ultimately, our nation’s leaders and policymakers at all levels must create the lasting reforms that can save lives and provide women warriors with the care and benefits they’ve earned through their service and sacrifice to our nation.
Jennifer Silva is chief program officer at Wounded Warrior Project. Jose Ramos is vice president of government affairs at Wounded Warrior Project. To learn more about how to advocate for the needs of women veterans through Women Warriors Initiative, visit http://woundedwarriorproject.org/EmpowerWomenVets.
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