Women Veterans Committee
The Silent Wounds Of War
BY KATE O’HARE-PALMER
“It’s OK. You are safe now. Everything is going to be alright.” These are the words that many of us said to the wounded during the war. And these were the promises made by the military and the VA to its veterans. Yet here we are beginning 2015 with major health care issues shadowing us four decades after the Vietnam War.
This past year has been filled with meetings and town hall presentations dealing with the multiple illnesses and diseases many of us have as a result of our service during the Vietnam era—in country or on bases around the globe. The toxic exposures that we experienced have resulted in long-term health consequences for us and our families for generations to come. Whether it is through an Agent Orange town hall or a PTSD and suicide prevention program by Tom Berger, the information is getting out. Look on our website to find presentations near you.
In October the Women Veterans Committee reviewed the Vietnam Women Veterans Era Study. There are two parts to the study: One is to determine the prevalence of MS, Parkinson’s disease, and PTSD among women veterans. The other is to determine the status of women’s health, especially as related to cardiac disease, hypertension, diabetes, ALS, Parkinson’s disease, and cancers of the brain, breast, and reproductive organs.
It will be another year before all the results are announced. The study has shown that women who served in country have a higher incidence of death due to pancreatic cancer, brain disease, car accidents, and PTSD.
This study also reported that there was an across-the-board 50 percent reported rate of sexual harassment or assault. Sadly this issue is still occurring. Just last month the Department of Defense issued its Sexual Assault Prevention Response report.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, reported a decrease in reported assaults in 2014 compared with 2012. For women, there were 19,000 cases, down from 26,000. For men, the rate was essentially the same. However, the retaliation factor that women fear when reporting assaults to their commanders is still a problem.
There is some good news. The VA has announced expanded eligibility for veterans in need of mental health care due to military sexual trauma. This expansion includes Reservists and National Guard members participating in weekend drills, which fulfills VVA Convention Resolution WV-9, passed at the last National Convention. We will need to review other areas of health care, along with women veteran issues, that we want to include at the 2015 Convention. Please contact us if you have a resolution. Each idea is important.
BY KATE O’HARE-PALMER, CHAIR
These last few months have been busy with events supporting women veterans. March was Women’s History Month, and I hope that many of you were able to participate in programs held in your area. Each state’s department of veterans affairs has an appointed deputy secretary for women veterans. Each state also has a website that is a good resource for women veterans.
Memorial Day events at the Capitol, the Mall, and Arlington were well attended by your VVA national leaders. It was my first time being part of those heartwarming events.
Currently there are 2.2 million women veterans. Fifty-five percent of returning women veterans require some form of treatment. The traumas and transitions for these veterans affect them and their families. Women veterans are not immediately recognized by the public as veterans. Often, women do not consider themselves veterans. They will answer the question, “Have you ever served in the military?” with an affirmative, but will answer “no” if asked, “Are you a veteran?”
Women veterans are the fastest-growing group served by the VA. Services include mental health, reproductive health, sexual trauma, and other gender-sensitive issues. The VA is now recognizing some of the issues related to same sex-couples. Pilot programs provide childcare at some VA sites, as well as telecommunication for certain specialty care visits in outlying areas. A recent study in California of women veterans found that fewer than 30 percent use VA health services. Due to the current scandal about VA services, trust in services may drop even more.
June was PTSD Awareness Month and Suicide Awareness Month. Twenty-two veterans commit suicide each day. Several veterans service organizations have taken on the task of increasing awareness. The suicide prevention hotline 800-273-TALK(8255), as well as the mobile apps for PTSD Coach, are steps the VA has taken to help.
What is clear from the website is the consistency of the interviews with the men and women returning from active duty. Their transition is no different than ours was. Their stories will ring true for many women Vietnam veterans reading this column. We have a history of experience that can be invaluable to these returning veterans. You are a light in your community that may be needed by someone dealing with transition issues. It only takes one. Turn around, be present, and be involved.
Military Sexual Trauma & Women Veterans
BY KATE O’HARE-PALMER
It is a throwback in time, the secrets of some women in the military during the Vietnam era. We gathered in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial last November. We came together to remember, share our stories, and be thankful for our lives. We stood shoulder to shoulder on a cold November night to remember those no longer with us as their names were read. We were grateful for those men and women we worked with. We were grateful for those we healed.
But there were other ghosts who stood there with us that night—ghosts who stood off to the side in our peripheral vision, men we may still feel deep within us. We are hooked deeply enough to still bleed and cry. Even after all these years, their memories are still present, but pushed far back to only wander at night.
Many of the stories aren’t told in public. Many weren’t even shared with spouses, loved ones, or healthcare workers. Maybe not even with tent mates or hooch mates. They weren’t shared in many of the bases around the world where women in service were confronted again and again with the terror of military sexual trauma.
During the Vietnam War Era, if you reported a sexual assault there was no hope that it would be taken seriously. There were rarely repercussions for acts against women. The good-ole-boy military did not discipline a man for behaving like a “normal male.” The stigma about getting raped was so great that victims kept it to themselves. Often women kept quiet so as not to frighten the other women in their units.
Many women were awakened in the night by a man breaking into the hooch, or they woke as they were about to be raped. Guards posted around women’s areas often were paid to look the other way. It was a hazard for a woman to go to the latrine at night alone.
One woman told of her first day in-country in Vietnam when she flew into Da Nang. An officer at the airport offered her a place to rest after more than twenty-four hours of travel. She was assaulted by him, then taken back to the airport. She collapsed and was taken to a hospital and treated, then she went on to her duty station. No charges were made, no questions asked when she reported for duty, and no medical records existed when, years later, she finally went for treatment at a VA hospital for MST.
Carrying a weapon did not guarantee safety, either. The incidence of a higher-ranking man forcing himself on a woman under his command was common. There was no place to lodge a complaint, let alone feel secure. Transferring or exiting the military were the only ways out.
Other issues arose when a gay or lesbian service military member was assaulted. These assaults also were swept away, and serious repercussions existed for those identified as gay or lesbian. Even those thought to be gay or lesbian could be interrogated, harassed, and forced to resign or leave military service. Discharge proceedings often were implemented immediately.
Fear and numbness blocked out everything else. Yet those who were assaulted lived on. They felt “lucky to be alive.” Many did not address the feelings of numbness; sleeping troubles; attention deficit and concentration issues; problems with drugs or alcohol or relationships; health problems such as sexual issues, chronic pain, weight issues, eating problems, stomach or gut problems; anger, depression, or irritability; problems with triggering events; and thoughts of suicide.
Today we see an increased incidence of MST. For the Department of Defense sexual assault includes rape, forcible penetration via threats of death or grievous harm, and wrongful sexual contact without consent. Sexual harassment is not included.
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (www.nsvrc.org) claims that there were more than 26,000 reports—14,000 by men and 12,000 by women—of unwanted sexual contact in the military in 2012. Of the 1,714 cases that qualified for possible disciplinary action, only 594 went to a military court.
DOD estimates that the actual number of assaults is five to six times higher than the number reported.
During 2010, 20 percent of female veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan reported having experienced MST. Researchers noted that these veterans were at four times greater risk of homelessness than civilian women.
And in 2002, one in five active-duty women reported physical and sexual assault by their intimate partners—often partners who were active duty or retired.
These statistics are staggering. Improvements to the system must be made.