The Women Veterans Symposium, held March 21 at the Carson Community Center, celebrated military women and vets while military chaplain Brenda J. Threatt, the LA mayor’s veterans outreach coordinator, spoke out about the continued challenges they face.
“This is the active combat uniform,” she said. “Everything on this uniform means something.” So what does it mean, she then asked, that military uniforms are not designed for the female body? Though “I’d give my life, I’d give my all for America,” she declared, “we become a part of machinery that has no gender. But we have suffered because of our gender inside our uniform.”
Women’s bodies have indeed been a mystery–or maybe annoying inconvenience–to the US military. VA health centers are now required to have a department focused on women’s health, including treatment for Military Sexual Trauma (MST), a sad necessity given the well documented and horrific rate of sexual assault in the uniformed services. Callie Wight, MA, RN, manager of GLAHS (Greater Los Angeles Health Care Systems) Women Veterans Program offers counseling and psychotherapy to address MST. She also noted that the VA only recently began to offer pre-natal care to pregnant servicewomen in addition to other gynecological services. “We wanted to do that for years,” she said, but the VA had to wait (and wait) for Congressional approval.
It’s about time. According to the California Department of Veterans Affairs, women account for 20% of military recruits in the US and the percentage is rising. As of October 2010, California had the highest number of women vets in the country and of the estimated 1.8 million women veterans nationwide, only a fraction–255,000–use VA healthcare services. CalVet further notes that minority vets are less likely than whites to access the benefits due them. This certainly indicates a failure of outreach to women of color or a failure of trust, and so networking was an important part of the Carson event.
Theresa Brunella came from Oxford Health Care to let people know that help exists for low-income vets in need of home nursing and home health care. She connects vets with organizations that help them file VA paperwork and negotiate red tape while Oxford provides the needed services during the many months it takes for a claim to be processed–particularly important given the scandalous delays recently reported that are causing so much hardship to male as well as female vets.
Helen Brewer, retired from the Air Force, attended with an eye toward moving beyond her current job in security. Her long range entrepreneurial dream is to own and manage her own construction company and she wants to learn about training opportunities in the trades and support for small business initiatives.
Yvette Tucker, veterans representative in the admissions office at Los Angeles Southwest College, is interested in outreach. She helps women vets access tuition benefits and housing and is concerned that more women don’t take advantage of benefits to which they have earned the right. What she sees too often is that women don’t look to veterans programs or get involved because the male culture makes them feel excluded. In addition, some of the vets she assists suffer from MST or PTSD while the nearest VA center with specialized PTSD treatment is in Palo Alto. Locally, if women need specialized help, “it has to be referred out.”
But other help is available, as Wight explained before leading a guided meditation. In addition to locally based counseling and psychotherapy, the VA is now embracing some surprising treatment modalities. At the Sepulveda Ambulatory Care Center, Wight offers programs to women vets who–like anyone–can benefit from stress and tension reduction. You don’t need a diagnosis to participate in and benefit from meditation, Tai Chi, and yoga-based breathing, stretching, and relaxation. Call her for information at 818-895-9555.
Of course there’s another issue that preoccupies everyone today: Jobs, jobs, jobs.
Thursday’s symposium was organized by Julie De La Mora of the California Employment Development Department (EDD) which has many services specifically for veterans.
Her boss, Carolyn Anderson, Deputy Division Chief of LA’s EDD proclaimed, “At EDD, every day is Veterans Day,” and recalled the too often forgotten service and sacrifice of women dating back to the Revolutionary War. She paid special tribute to Army nurse Carol Ann Drazba who died in Vietnam only days after saving the life of Anderson’s father-in-law. Drazba, the war’s first female military casualty, was denied the Purple Heart and only recently honored with a monument funded by private donations.
How can the contributions of women become more visible? Eric Brubaker of the Red Cross attended to let people know about the Veterans History Project which since 2000 has been collecting audio and video oral histories from veterans as well as civilian workers who were actively involved in war efforts. Interviews are archived by the Library of Congress and some have been made available to the public at the website [www.loc.gov/vets]. A visit there shows that California women are not well (if at all!) represented. To be written into the history they helped make, women can schedule an interview or ask about the project by contacting Mike Farrar at 562-490-4003 or Mike.Farrar@redcross.org.
Keynote speaker, Brigadier General (Ret) Ruth Wong, and the many highly motivated women in attendance were living examples of the positive strengths and attributes employers can find in women vets.
Wong, now Acting Director, LA County Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, served in the theater of operations during the first Gulf War, leading troops and carrying weapons to protect herself and her patients as she cared for them during aeromedical evacuations. In other words, she served in a combat zone long before the recent decision to make women’s combat role official–and appropriately compensated.
In the military, she learned she could adapt to most situations. By commanding troops from all over the country, she tested her leadership skills and ability to understand people. “There’s always more ways than one way to get the job done,” and so she learned how and when to delegate responsibility. “Did combat experience change me?” In sharp contrast to negative stereotypes of combat vets she said, “It gave me added strength and compassion and gave me a road map for the future.”
For all the positive outcomes and outlooks at the symposium, no one forgot the sister vets struggling with poverty, hunger, and the results of trauma.
“Don’t ever let another sister down,” said Threatt.
As for the future of women in the military, she reminded all in attendance, “We can fight this fight against discrimination because we are in America. There are places around the world where women struggle to show their faces. We have the opportunity to fight.”
We all–active military, veteran, or civilian–have the opportunity to spread the word to help women vets connect with the programs cited in this article as well as services listed below:
Need a copy of your DD214 (separation from service form) to access benefits but you’re getting stuck in red tape? It can be requested from Military Service Records but a Statement of Service on Veterans Benefits Administration letterhead is also acceptable proof and can be obtained from the VBA on the fifth floor of the Federal Building in Westwood (11000 Wilshire Blvd.)
For active service members and vets returning from Iraq and/or Afghanistan and their loved ones, The Coming Home Project provides free and confidential services addressing emotional, psychological, spiritual and relationship challenges of deployment and reintegration: 415-353-5363.
Licensed mental health professionals throughout California offer free psychological treatment to military service members who have served in or expect deployment to Afghanistan or Iraq and would prefer not to be seen by the VA: 818-761-7498 for a referral.
Are there women out there who would like contact with other vets but don’t want to join the local American Legion post? Irene Cruz, a Marines vet and co-chair of the SEIU Veteran Caucus, is building up an all-woman virtual post and invites interested vets to contact her at email@example.com
Rock for Vets, a music therapy program based at the Long Beach VA, gets veterans together for sing-alongs and for instrumental music lessons. For information or to join the group, vets are encouraged to contact Frank McIlquham at firstname.lastname@example.org.
New Directions Women’s Program, the first residential program in the US specifically for female veterans confronting homelessness, substance abuse, PTSD and other mental health issues, offers both emergency and transitional housing and a wide range of support services, including assistance in family reunification and regaining custody of children. For more information, please contact Renee Banton, program supervisor, at 310-709-5871. For immediate 24-hour assistance: 310-914-5966.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a 24-hour hotline for anyone in distress. Call 1-800-273-8255 to be connected to a civilian California crisis center or press 1 to be routed to a VA counselor at the Veteran Suicide Prevention Hotline.
The Lifeline also offers online chat, in English or Spanish, through which veterans, their families and friends can connect anonymously to either a civilian or trained VA counselor. www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org
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