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On Veterans Day, Remember the Women

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CREDIT: Flickr / davids

America so valorizes military service, relentlessly commemorating the fallen in rich and myriad ways. Yet we demonstrate remarkably less regard for the scores of men and women who make it home alive. Today, soldiers returning from deployment are thrust into civilian society as abruptly as they were once thrust into war—finding little, if any, infrastructure to help them with a critical transition.

The consequences of the government’s failure to adequately care for war-torn veterans are immense: This Veterans Day, 1.5 million homeless vets will spend the holiday on the streets or in substandard housing, 18 vets will commit suicide as they have done every day for years since the wars started, and scores of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan continue to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Tragically, a growing number of veterans suffering from PTSD will spend the holiday behind bars for committing violent crimes in civilian society— many of which could be prevented if these soldiers just received the care that they desperately needed upon returning home.

In spite of the overwhelming respect Americans bestow on deployed soldiers and those killed in combat, we routinely overlook and neglect our veterans. And perhaps the most invisible segment of those veterans is women vets.

More than 200,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and are, for the first time in U.S. history, engaging in combat situations.

"In a war where there is no longer a clear delineation between the front lines … and the sidelines … where the war can grab you anywhere, this will be the first generation of veterans where large segments of women returning will have been exposed to some form of combat," Mullen said in a speech last week to the U.S. Institute of Peace.

While women only constitute 11 percent of troops deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, they suffer PTSD at much higher rates than their male counterparts—20 percent compared to 8 percent.

Duane Knutson, a former Vietnam Army medic who runs a PTSD foundation for veterans, toldthe Arizona Republic that the reasons for the disparity are two-fold:

"Women perform in a support capacity when serving in a combat zone," he said. "They usually don't develop the camaraderie that the combat troops develop. This cohesiveness among the fighting troops creates a certain comfort and trust in the soldier standing next to you. When serving in a support capacity, this cohesiveness never develops and stress levels increase."

Also, Knutson said, most of the female veterans who contact his office to talk about their experiences or get referrals to non-VA doctors for PTSD treatment were sexually assaulted during their time in the military.

As Knutson suggests, the prevalence of sexual assault in the military is alarming. Studies conducted in 2003 and 2004 (before large numbers of women were deployed to combat zones in the middle east) foundthat 30 percent of women veterans were raped by fellow soldiers, while 71 percent of those seeking help for PTSD has been sexually assaulted while serving in the military. Servicewomen coping with sexual assault who then serve in combat zones face unique mental health challenges that aren’t adequately, if at all, addressed when they return home.

Unfortunately, the support infrastructure for veterans hasn’t kept pace with the rapidly changing circumstances of today’s wars. Until July of this year, the Department of Veterans Affairs’ PTSD policy precluded many veterans, but in particular women, from receiving the help they needed. The old policy required veterans to detail specific, documented events that caused their disorder, which many vets suffering from PTSD aren’t able to do.

For women, the policy could prove even more restrictive; because women aren’t technically allowed to serve in combat (Salon’s Tracy Clark-Flory has details on why that is), conventional wisdom suggests that women don’t experience the same sorts of combat-related trauma as men. Of course, in Afghanistan and Iraq, they do.

Though the policy has changed for the better, changes have come too late for many veterans. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have raged for nearly a decade, with scores of vets forced to deal with their invisible traumas on their own.

As still more troops are being deployed to the Middle East, and the end of the wars growing more elusive, supporting veterans should be a greater priority for both the U.S. government and the American people.

Veterans Day shouldn’t be an empty day of venerating military service, but a day in which we critically examine the human costs of that service, and ask ourselves whether we’ve done enough for the millions of marginalized veterans that we once revered as soldiers.

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