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Supporting She Who Has Borne the Battle

United Press International  |  January 02, 2008
Supporting She Who Has Borne the Battle
Paul Rieckhoff | October 15, 2009

When Sergeant Cara Hammer returned from her deployment in Iraq in 2005, she thought her days of fighting were over. But she quickly discovered that she had more battles ahead of her.

After surviving roadside bombs and mortar rounds in Iraq, Cara came home and realized that she was suffering from an invisible wound, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Determined to seek help for her mental health injury, Cara turned to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for care.

Unfortunately, she wasn't exactly met with open arms. Her description of her first experience walking into a VA hospital should make your blood boil.

"I felt like a candy striper. The only difference is I'm carrying around my medical records, instead of passing out candy and cigarettes.  Cat-calls turned what was already an uncomfortable situation into a nightmare."

Cara is far from alone. The veterans of this generation aren't just the demographic you may know from your grandfather's VFW hall.  Women now make up 11 percent of the American force in Iraq and Afghanistan. And these female troops and veterans are not receiving the same level of support from the military and the VA as their male peers.  Not even close. As a result, they are facing significant and unique challenges that we can no longer afford to ignore:

• Sexual Assault, Harassment and Military Sexual Trauma (MST) -- Women in the military have been coping with widespread and underreported sexual assault and harassment for decades. Last year alone, there were almost 3,000 reports of sexual assault involving servicemembers.  Incredibly, this is probably only the tip of the iceberg; almost half of all sexual assaults go unreported. Among those female Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have turned to the VA for care, nearly 15 percent have screened positive for Military Sexual Trauma (MST).

• Dramatically Higher Divorce Rates for Female Servicemembers -- Marriages of female troops are failing at almost three times the rate of male servicemembers. How did a Pentagon spokesperson respond to seeing these numbers today? He called the statistics "alarming," and added, "This is the first time I'm hearing these numbers." Ironic, considering these are their numbers.

• Barriers to VA Health Care -- The VA is woefully underprepared to meet the surge of female veterans coming to its hospitals and clinics. Only 14 percent of VA facilities offer specialized, comprehensive women's health clinics, and the VA is experiencing serious shortages of qualified women's health and mental health providers. With female enrollment at the VA expected to double in the next 15 years, it is past time to address these significant barriers to care.

• Rising Rates of Homelessness among Female Veterans -- Female veterans are swelling the ranks of the homeless. There are already more than 13,000 homeless female veterans nationwide. And existing programs for these homeless female veterans aren't cutting it. Adding to the challenge is the increasing number of female veterans with families in need of homeless services. Almost a quarter of female vets in the VA's homeless programs have children under the age of 18, creating a ripple effect that will impact people for generations to come.

More than 140 years ago, President Lincoln pledged America's obligation, "To Care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan." It is time for the nation to renew this commitment to our women warriors. After honorably fighting overseas, female veterans, like Cara Hammer, shouldn't have to wage new battles once they get home.  And they should be treated like heroes, not candy stripers.

This week, IAVA launched its latest Issue Report, "Women Warriors: Supporting She ‘Who Has Borne the Battle," on the unique and urgent service and homecoming challenges facing female troops and veterans. The report is the cornerstone of IAVA's first annual "Week of the Women Warriors," a multi-faceted effort to honor the courage and sacrifice of female servicemembers. Visit to download the full report and find out more ways to get involved on behalf of our nation's women warriors.

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