G.I. Jane, home from war

When Amer­i­cans think of vet­er­ans, they rarely think of women. That should change.

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By Gayle Tzemach Lem­mon Gayle Tzemach Lem­mon is a se­nior fel­low at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions and the au­thor most re­cently of “Ash­ley’s War: The Un­told Story of a Team of Women Sol­diers on the Spe­cial Ops Bat­tle­field.”

Since 9/11, more than 200,000 women have been de­ployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, and more than 160 women have died in ser­vice to their coun­try. Women have fought on the front lines as com­bat pi­lots and mil­i­tary po­lice pla­toon lead­ers. They have re­ceived Sil­ver Stars and Bronze Stars for Valor. Some have even joined spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces on com­bat mis­sions.

Yet when peo­ple think of vet­er­ans, they rarely think of women.

As the vet­er­ans or­ga­ni­za­tion the Mission Con­tin­ues found in a sur­vey out this week of fe­male vet­er­ans, a “com­mon theme among our re­spon­dents was a per­cep­tion of in­vis­i­bil­ity both in the ser­vice and at home. While in uni­form, nearly two-thirds of re­spon­dents said they had to work harder than men to prove them­selves. When those women left the mil­i­tary, barely a third (37%) said they felt rec­og­nized, re­spected and val­ued by so­ci­ety for their con­tri­bu­tions as vet­er­ans.”

One vet­eran in Min­nesota told me re­cently that when she tried to join a lo­cal vet­er­ans or­ga­ni­za­tion, she was guided to the women’s aux­il­iary rather than the group for ser­vice mem­bers.

An­other sol­dier based at Ft. Bragg told me that she saw a manda­tory coun­selor af­ter her tour in Afghanistan, who said that even though she “did not see com­bat” and was “mostly on base,” she might have some reen­try is­sues. He had no idea that she had served an eight-month tour as part of a spe­cial op­er­a­tions team of women and had been on night raids sev­eral times a week through­out her de­ploy­ment.

And a few months back, a North Carolina Air Force vet­eran who served in Kuwait set off a me­dia storm when she told lo­cal re­porters about a nasty note she dis­cov­ered af­ter she left her car in a spot marked “Vet­eran Park­ing.”

“This space is re­served for those who fought for Amer­ica ... not you,” read the mis­sive Mary Claire Caine found stuck to her wind­shield.

“I think they took one look at me when I got out of my car and saw that I was a woman and as­sumed I wasn’t a vet­eran and as­sumed I hadn’t served my coun­try,” Caine said at the time. “They have this im­age of what to­day’s Amer­i­can vet­eran is, and hon­estly, if you’ve served in the United States mil­i­tary, you know that vet­er­ans come in all shapes and sizes.”

Ev­i­dently Amer­ica is still think­ing small, even as women in uni­form make strides on the coun­try’s be­half.

Re­cent his­tory is full of sto­ries of women break­ing new ground. The first woman to fly the F-35, the Air Force’s “pre­mier fighter,” took to the skies last month. Years ear­lier she had flown com­bat mis­sions in Afghanistan. The Navy’s Blue An­gels have their first fe­male pi­lot this year.

Army Ranger school re­cently opened to women for the first time. No women made it through the first phase of the course. But 19 women qual­i­fied. And 42% of them made it through the gru­el­ing phys­i­cal tests of the first four days, com­pared with 48% of men. Three will soon try once more.

The gap be­tween women’s ser­vice and our per­cep­tions has con­se­quences; it makes fe­male vet­er­ans’ reen­try into Amer­i­can so­ci­ety es­pe­cially chal­leng­ing.

Many do not self-iden­tify as vet­er­ans and do not ap­ply for the help and the ser­vices — from hous­ing to health­care to job place­ment — they could re­ceive once they re­turn home.

The Los An­ge­les Times re­ported Mon­day that fe­male vet­er­ans “com­mit sui­cide at nearly six times the rate of other women” — and per­haps not sur­pris­ingly, at nearly the same rate as their broth­ers-in-arms. In the piece, ex­perts noted with con­cern that fe­male vet­er­ans lack a “sense of be­long­ing,” which can ex­ac­er­bate de­pres­sion.

In the two years I spent re­port­ing on women who served on the front lines with spe­cial ops in 2011, I found that com­mu­nity sus­tained the sol­diers in this pi­lot pro­gram while they were on the bat­tle­field and, even more so, when they re­turned home. While the rest of the Army and the en­tire United States had no idea what they had done and seen, they at least had one an­other to rely on. They are now fam­ily for life, one an­other’s ca­reer coaches and mar­riage coun­selors and best friends.

Such do-it-your­self com­mu­nity-build­ing is crit­i­cal and im­por­tant, but fe­male vet­er­ans also need a na­tion that rec­og­nizes and cel­e­brates them.

When­ever fe­male vet­er­ans do re­ceive a men­tion in public life, the fo­cus tends to be on their suf­fer­ing. The me­dia leads with sto­ries of mil­i­tary sex­ual trauma and post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der.

With­out doubt th­ese are very real prob­lems that must be ad­dressed. Ac­cord­ing to the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs, nearly three-quar­ters of fe­male vet­er­ans living in the state re­ported experiencing sex­ual ha­rass­ment, and 40% re­ported experiencing sex­ual as­sault while in the mil­i­tary. Home­less­ness is also a crit­i­cal is­sue.

But by defin­ing fe­male vet­er­ans by their vic­tim­hood, we leave out a cru­cial part of their ser­vice: their valor. Women have shown courage, grit and heart on the bat­tle­field. They have al­ready proved them­selves on the front lines and in ser­vice, even if our na­tional nar­ra­tive hasn’t yet rec­og­nized it.

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