Back from combat, women struggle for acceptanceAssociated Press
December 13, 2009
WASHINGTON - Nobody wants to buy them a beer: Even near military bases, female veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan aren't often offered a drink on the house as a welcome home.
More than 230,000 American women have fought in those recent wars and at least 120 have died doing so, yet the public still doesn't completely understand their contributions on the modern battlefield.
For some, it's a lonely transition as they struggle to find their place.
Aimee Sherrod, an Air Force veteran who did three war tours, said years went by when she didn't tell people she was a veteran. After facing sexual harassment during two tours and mortar attacks in Iraq, the 29-year-old mother of two from Bells, Tenn., was medically discharged in 2005 with post-traumatic stress disorder.
She's haunted by nightmares and wakes up some nights thinking she's under attack. She's moody as a result of PTSD and can't function enough to work or attend college. Like some other veterans, she felt she improperly received a low disability rating by the Department of Veterans Affairs that left her with a token monthly payment. She was frustrated that her paperwork mentioned she was pregnant, a factor she thought was irrelevant.
"I just gave up on it and I didn't tell anyone about ever being in the military because I was so ashamed over everything," Sherrod said.
Then Jo Eason, a Nashville, Tenn., lawyer working pro bono through the Lawyers Serving Warriors program, stepped in a few years later and Sherrod began taking home a heftier monthly disability payment.
"I've never regretted my military service, I'm glad I did it," Sherrod said. "I'm not ashamed of my service. I'm ashamed to try and tell people about it because it's like, well, why'd you get out? All the questions that come with it."
The Defense Department bars women from serving in assignments where the primary mission is to engage in direct ground combat. But the nature of the recent conflicts, with no clear front lines, puts women in the middle of the action, in roles such as military police officers, pilots, drivers and gunners on convoys. In addition to the 120-plus deaths, more than 650 women have been wounded.
Back home, women face many of the same issues as the men, but the personal stakes may be greater.
Female service members have much higher rates of divorce and are more likely to be a single parent. When they do seek help at VA medical centers, they are screening positive at a higher rate for military sexual trauma, meaning they indicated experiencing sexual harassment, assault or rape. Some studies have shown that female veterans are at greater risk for homelessness.
Former Army Sgt. Kayla Williams, an Iraq veteran who has written about her experience, said she was surprised by the response she and other women from the 101st Airborne Division received from people in Clarksville, Tenn., near Fort Campbell, Ky.
She said residents just assumed they were girlfriends or wives of military men.
"People didn't come up to us and thank us for our service in the same way. They didn't give us free beers in bars in the same way when we first got back," said Williams, 34, of Ashburn, Va. "Even if you're vaguely aware of it, it still colors how you see yourself in some ways."
Genevieve Chase, 32, of Alexandria, Va., a staff sergeant in the Army Reserves, said the same guys who were her buddies in Afghanistan didn't invite her for drinks later on because their wives or girlfriends wouldn't approve.
"One of the hardest things that I had to deal with was, being a woman, was losing my best friends or my comrades to their families," Chase said.
It was that sense of loss, she said, that led her to get together with some other female veterans for brunch in New York last year. The group has evolved into the American Women Veterans, which now has about 2,000 online supporters, some of whom go on camping trips and advocate for veterans' issues. About a dozen marched in this year's Veteran's Day parade in New York.
"We just want to know that when we come home, America has our back," Chase said. "That's the biggest thing. Women are over there. You want to feel like you're coming home to open arms, rather than to a public that doesn't acknowledge you for what you've just done and what you just sacrificed."
Rachel McNeill, a gunner during hostile convoys in Iraq, said she was so affected by the way people treated her when they learned she fought overseas that she even started to question whether she was a veteran.
She described the attitudes as "Oh, you didn't do anything or you were just on base," said McNeill, who suffers from postconcussive headaches, ringing in her ears, and other health problems related to roadside bomb blasts. The 25-year-old from Hollandale, Wis., was a sergeant in the Army Reserves.
She said she seemingly even got that response when she told the VA staff in Madison, Wis., of her work. She said she was frustrated to see in her VA paperwork how what she told them had been interpreted.
"It would say like, 'the patient rode along on convoys,' like I was just a passenger in the back seat," McNeill said.
Other women have had similar complaints. The VA leadership has said it recognizes it needs to do more to improve care for these veterans, and as part of changes in the works, female coordinators are in place at each medical center to give women an advocate. The agency is also reviewing comments on a proposal to make it easier for those who served in noninfantry roles - including women - to qualify for disability benefits for PTSD.
Sen. Patty Murray, a member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs committee, recently asked VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and Defense Secretary Robert Gates to ensure that service members' combat experience is included on their military discharge papers, so later they can get benefits they are entitled to.
Research has shown that a lack of validation of a soldier's service can make their homecoming more difficult.
"What worries me is that women themselves still don't see themselves as veterans, so they don't get the care they need for post-traumatic stress syndrome or traumatic brain injury or even sexual assault, which obviously is more unique to women, so we still have a long ways to go," said Murray, D-Wash.
Chase said one challenge is getting female veterans to ask for changes.
"Most of us, because we were women service members, are so used to not complaining and not voicing our issues, because in the military that's considered weak. Nobody wants to hear the girl whine," Chase said.
McNeill said that when she's been out at restaurants and bars with the guys in her unit, they make sure she gets some recognition when the free beers go around.
"They'll make a point ... usually to say, 'She was over there with us, she was right next to us,'" McNeill said.