AUGUSTA, Maine — If you’ve served in the military, that makes you a veteran, right?
Right, but far too many vets in Maine — particularly women — either don’t know or are ignoring their veteran status and all of the support and benefits that come with it.
That was part of the impetus for Volunteers of America to sponsor simultaneous conferences Tuesday called “After the Uniform: Responding to America’s Women Warriors.”
Priscilla Kerbrat is one of them. She graduated high school in June 1980 and by the end of that month she had enlisted in the Navy. She met her husband while stationed in Newport, Rhode Island, and about a year later, she left the Navy to raise their first son. Kerbrat’s military career continued for another two years in the reserves.
During the next three decades, her family moved all over the country until finally landing in Maine in recent years to be near Kerbrat’s granddaughter. An unfortunate string of events led to her living at the Huot House, a transitional shelter for homeless veterans run by Volunteers of America in Saco, for the past two years.
It never occurred to Kerbrat that her veteran status could help her improve her life, but thanks to a range of programs, she graduated from a course last week and is now a certified nurse’s aide looking for a job.
“I’ve always wanted to be in the medical field,” said Kerbrat, who attended Tuesday’s event at Bangor Savings Bank in Augusta. “Being a CNA, once I get a job I will have a steady income and not have to worry about where the money is going to come from.”
According to experts, approximately 10,000 women in Maine are veterans, but the majority of them let their tangible connections to the military dissolve when they left the service.
“How do we reach out to our women veterans? I don’t know the answer,” said LaRhonda Harris, a Maine-based women veterans program manager with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs who was one of the panelists at Tuesday’s event. “Our women veterans do not identify as veterans if they did not serve in combat. For every veteran who serves in combat, there are 10 people in support standing behind them.”
A major part of the problem is the fact that for generations, the military was made up of mostly men — and still is. It wasn’t until recent decades that military organizations, including those responsible for supporting veterans in their transitions to civilian lives, began to turn more attention to women. But there’s a lot of work left to be done, from creating more social organizations that are inclusive of female veterans to ensuring that the military takes substantive steps to end sexual harassment and assault.
“A lot of our women don’t trust the VA because they were let down by their Department of Defense,” said Harris. “They went to their supervisors and commanding officers with issues and they were ignored. Why would they go to the VA?”
According to Harris and others, including retired U.S. Air Force veteran Terry Moore, who is a women veterans advocate serving on the Maine Veterans’ Homes board of trustees, many women feel like seeking services — even basic medical care — exposes them to a stigma that there must be something wrong with them.
“We’re not broken,” said Moore. “We’re no different than any male who has served in the military in that we came out with experience that may need some attention. … This is not females asking to be special or unique or different. … That’s our goal to have a veteran be a veteran be a veteran, regardless of gender.”
Harris said that development of support for military women, such as those working to help women with post-traumatic stress disorder or military sexual trauma, are to be lauded for their missions but may sway public opinion just with their existence.
“We are categorizing our women veterans as being victims in a lot of the groups we are setting up,” she said. “When we open some of our groups and services we need to be inclusive and not exclusive. … You don’t exclude a woman veteran because she doesn’t have substance abuse, she doesn’t have military sexual trauma and she doesn’t have PTSD.”
According to Moore, it wasn’t until 1991 that the Department of Defense “even thought of” gender-specific care. In Maine, it wasn’t until about five years later that the Togus VA hospital opened a women’s clinic.
Lu MacDonald of Durham, a 70-year-old who served eight years in the Navy and 15 years with the National Guard, does not count herself among the women who have missed out on military services. She and her two sons have benefitted from the military’s education benefits, and she said Togus VA hospital has improved significantly over the years when it comes to caring for women.
“When I first enlisted, they didn’t know what to do with women veterans,” said MacDonald. “It’s gotten better but it’s taken a long time.”
The trend is moving in the right direction, according to national experts. Dr. Susan McCutcheon, the national mental health director for family services, women’s mental health and military sexual trauma for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said during a national panel debate that was broadcast to Tuesday’s event in Augusta that there was a 58 percent increase in women seeking veterans services between 2005 and 2013.