As a kid, the military was a mystery to me. Service members were embodied by a cartoon and and an action figure: GI Joe. It’s only now that, after working for nearly a decade as a civilian in the military and veteran communities, I’m led to ask, what about GI Jane?
To this day, as a nation, we don’t see women as combat veterans. We only see GI Joe. And yet, the military is at its most diverse point, with women as the fastest growing population both in service and in the veteran community. They comprise nearly 20 percent of new recruits, 15 percent of the 1.4 million active duty force, and 18 percent of the 850,000 reserve component. In 2003, they represented six percent of the veteran population; today, they represent 10 percent. So what about GI Jane? Why do we still refuse to see her, to support her and acknowledge the sacrifices that she’s made for this country?
These are the questions that led me to participate in an interview with Samantha Bee for the debut of her new show February 8 on TBS, which is focused on women veterans. As Research Director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the largest nonprofit, nonpartisan organization representing post-9/11 veterans and their families, I’ve spent the last few years talking to women veterans, hearing their stories and sharing their successes and disappointments. The story of women veterans is both simple and complex, and it’s one that as a nation we must all embrace.
In January, the Secretary of Defense recognized and made official the growing role of women in the military, lifting all restrictions on women seeking combat arms occupations. Yet even before this declaration, more than 280,000 women served in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of them in combat roles. When they came home, they came back to a nation that, at best, doesn’t recognize them and, at worst, challenges their service.
This generation of women veterans is strong and proud. But they’re also tired of being forgotten, defending their service or struggling to get the benefits that they have earned because they don’t look like a veteran or sound like a veteran. They don’t look like GI Joe.
There are many examples of successful women who have transitioned from the military and are now thriving in their daily lives. But overall, while this population is growing, it is also struggling. Women veterans generally are at higher risk for unemployment and homelessness than their male counterparts. They are more likely to be single parents and recent data show an alarmingly high suicide rate.
Last year, IAVA set out to ask why they were struggling. We surveyed 1,500 women veterans and traveled to eight cities, speaking with more than 60 women vets. As we talked to them, an overarching theme emerged: women veterans do not necessarily see their challenges as unique. They feel they have the same challenges as male veterans. The difference is the lack of services specific to women and a lack of support overall. Women don’t receive the same level of support as their male peers and in fact it is often difficult for women to find peers in the veteran community. But overall these women don’t want to be looked at as different or damaged and, honestly, they don’t want to be looked at as “women veterans.” They simply want to be recognized as veterans and receive the care and support that they have earned through their service.
In talking with these women, it became clear that the first challenge is a very basic one: recognition. These women left one battle only to find another, where their service is constantly questioned and they repeatedly have to defend it. This happens everywhere: in the parking lot when they park in a veteran reserved space and are criticized for it; at the local vets, when they attend a gathering of their peers and are received like outsiders; at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) when they walk in for an appointment and the staff greets them as a spouse; or when they seek assistance to file a VA benefits claim from a veteran service officer and are met with disbelief. This must change. This nation must stop assuming that a woman couldn’t possibly have served, couldn’t possibly be the veteran, couldn’t possibly have been in combat, nor could couldn’t possibly have injuries from their service. We must recognize the growing diversity of our forces. We must embrace that not every GI is a Joe.
Specifically, at the VA, women veterans experience a mixed bag. The overwhelming theme is the need for a standard level of quality care across all VA medical centers and clinics. Some women veterans reported great care, relaying stories of clinicians who are so good that they will follow them if ever they leave, who take the extra time to make an after hours phone call to check on their patient or who saved their life. And yet others shared horror stories of clinicians clearly unknowledgeable in female-specific care, stories of permanent nerve damage caused by the doctor inserting a speculum incorrectly, or the clinician who turned away a woman who was going into septic shock after experiencing multiple ruptured ovarian cysts, telling her she was fine.
The VA has come a long way in providing care for women. It built new women’s clinics with integrated mental health, it established mini residencies to train primary care providers in women’s health, it established women care coordinators, the Women Veterans Advisory Committee and a hotline all to oversee and enhance services for women vets. It also established a research arm solely dedicated to understanding and improving the experience of women vets at the VA, and enlisted organizations like IAVA to represent the veteran voice in overseeing this research. The VA has a great team in place to work on this issue and more resources have been allocated, but clearly not enough to support the needs of this growing population.
So the big question, what can you do? In the coming weeks IAVA will be rolling out a campaign to answer this very question. But we can start by recognizing that women are part of our nation’s military history and a vital part of the military tradition. We can also stop assuming that the military is an institution of white men. There are currently 1.6 million women veterans in this country and that population is quickly growing. These women will need not only our support but our recognition as they return home. I invite you learn more about these women at IAVA.org/campaign/supportingwomenveterans.
Dr. Jackie Maffucci is Research Director at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. She currently serves on the National Center for PTSD Education Advisory Board and the Department of Veterans Affairs Women’s Health CREATE Veterans Council.