Deborah Sampson of Massachusetts dressed up as a man in 1782, took the name Robert Shurtlieff and enlisted in America’s fledgling army. She fought side by side with men for more than a year during the Revolutionary War—even wounded in a skirmish—before being discovered and given an honorable discharge.
It’s much easier for women today to serve their country. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, there were more than 2 million women veterans in September 2014.
Although women now serve alongside men on the battlefield in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, there is one place where male and female soldiers may not be getting the same treatment. That place is after they return home and become veterans.
While men and women may share the same types of events in the military, how those events affect them can be quite different, said Joy Ilem, deputy national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, an organization that provides services to and advocacy on behalf of veterans.
“The research that’s out there on women veterans and how they experience their military experience (shows that it) differs from men,” she said. “How they come back and integrate into the community is somewhat different.”
Last fall, Disabled American Veterans released a report looking at federal services provided for veterans by the departments of Defense, Labor and Veterans Affairs. The report said researchers “identified serious gaps in every aspect of the programs that serve women.”
“The majority of these deficiencies really resulted from just a disregard of the different needs of women veterans,” Ilem said. “There’s been this historic focus on programs for the men who have been prominent in the military, as veterans, in war time and in the public consciousness.”
The report found issues such as one-third of VA medical centers didn’t have a gynecologist. Programs to house homeless vets often cannot provide shelter for children. Women also seem to have a harder time translating their military experience into the civilian job market.
“I think that it’s a really important issue that needs to be addressed,” Ilem said. “States are very interested in wanting to provide services to their veterans. I think that the report can also translate into thinking about those programs and services (on the state level), … making sure that they’re really thinking about, is there some difference for women.”
Kentucky Spotlights Women
Kentucky’s Department of Veterans Affairs has named 2015 the Year of the Veteran Woman. The state also hired its first full-time women veterans coordinator in April, LuWanda Knuckles, who is a member of the Kentucky National Guard and has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
“This is just to highlight women and only women, because you don’t hear a lot about it,” Knuckles said.
“There are tons of women over the seven branches that do wonderful things, but you don’t hear anything about that as often as you do with males.”
Margaret Plattner, Kentucky’s deputy commissioner for veterans affairs, said state officials are doing many things to reach women veterans. A women veterans’ committee is being formed to advise the department about issues female veterans face, regional support groups are being established and the department held a statewide women veterans’ conference that drew in 200 attendees.
“We just felt like we need to be paying more attention to our women veterans,” Plattner said. “They may be under-recognized and we want to be reaching out to them more aggressively.”
Home Base Iowa
Robert King, executive director of the Iowa Department of Veterans Affairs, said his state is looking more at programs that benefit veterans overall.
Gov. Terry Branstad signed the Home Base Iowa Act last Memorial Day. It offers a variety of incentives for veterans, such as a tax exemption for military pensions, home ownership assistance and preferences for veterans in hiring practices. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation named Iowa as an All Vet State in 2014.
“I’ll be an advocate for any veterans as is applicable to the cause,” said King, “whether it be male, female, homeless, the disabled, whatever. If there is a cause that we can help support that makes life better for those veterans, we will get engaged.”
Virginia Stresses Communication
John L. Newby, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Veterans Services, said even identifying women veterans can be difficult. Virginia, with more than 107,000 female veterans, has the nation’s fourth-largest female veteran population.
“The difficulty is many women don’t view themselves as veterans,” Newby said. “If you ask them the question, are they a veteran, they may say no. If you ask them if they served, then they may say yes. … Many women and some men think that, ‘Well, I didn’t serve in combat, or I didn’t deploy.’
“Then it becomes incumbent on the state to get out and just broadcast what we have available for them and formulate our message, not necessarily directed at veterans, but to all who served. It tends to capture more people when you phrase it that way, ‘Did you serve?’”
Newby said Virginia is trying to position itself as a leader in women veterans’ issues. State officials are planning their third women veterans’ conference next year and a committee composed of the federal VA, VA medical center directors and Newby focused one of its regular meetings on women veterans.
“We, as state folks and policymakers, see the train coming down the track squarely,” he said. “We just want to position ourselves to make sure the word is getting out to female veterans that we are here for them and there are some services directed to them.
“This is not catching Virginia by surprise at all and I don’t think it’s catching many other states by surprise, either. The thing about it is, to know about it is one thing, to actively reach out to female veterans and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got your back,’ is a different thing.”