Women veterans’ battle with unemployment goes unnoticed

Media Matter’s Lisa Reed connects a couple of dots from last night’s debate as the economy took a complementary role to the foreign policy discussion. Particularly, a close examination of the challenges women veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan face in this economic climate. And while the state of veteran affairs continues to have a male face, the condition of women veterans remains underreported. Last month’s Bureau of Labor Statistics reports:

Nearly one out of five women who served in the military at home or abroad during the two wars is now without a job, the new BLS statistics show. As the U.S. troop drawdown continues in Afghanistan, the unemployment rate for post-9/11 female vets surged to 19.9 percent in September, compared to 14.7 percent a year earlier and 12.1 percent in August.

Could this number be higher?  Depends on who does the counting. What we do know is that women veterans receiving full VA support in transitioning from military to civilian life becomes a moving target when we factor in the brave ones who report rape and sexual assault during their service.  And if they are unable to present supporting evidence for  these crimes (without supporting evidence, they are likely to be as Reed notes, “considered unfit to serve and therefore received a psychiatric discharge instead of an honorable one. And since personality disorders are considered pre-existing conditions, women discharged under this condition were exempt from VA benefits. They also lost education benefits like the G.I. Bill. All of this, on top of the tragic emotional trauma of the assault, contributed to employment instability.”

This summer, the subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Veterans affairs held a special hearing to address the crisis adjudicating these crimes within the military. Certainly a step in the right direction to correcting a culture of suppression and intimidation to victims of sex crimes in the military, but only a step.  Hopefully oversight rules will change and be enforced (emphasis is mine). That would make it difficult for a backlash–its own way of silencing, denying responsibility–when victims steps forward.

Additionally, programs that serve women veterans need to be educated to the needs of women beyond fixed ideas about civilian gender roles as we learned earlier this summer. Women make up 8% of military and 15% of returning veterans from the wars. Even if the candidates can barely mention the men and women serving in our military and the struggles of returning veterans in the debates, I’m snapped back into remembering when a missing person flyer goes up on a subway platform, handwritten by a loved one, pleading with a community to find a vet before she does harm to herself.


SYREETA MCFADDEN is a Brooklyn based writer, photographer and adjunct professor of English. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches and Storyscape Journal. She is the managing editor of the online literary magazine, Union Station, and a co-curator of Poets in Unexpected Places. You can follow her on Twitter @reetamac.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/magpie32/ Darcy

    On the subject of treatment of sexual assault victims within the military, it’s making small steps. I am a victims advocate with the Army National Guard. The system is flawed (OMG is it flawed!) but we are trying to make a difference as best we can. The goal is “Cultural change within the Army”…no small task, and so very needed.

    One area that is making some gains: The Army has clearly stated that harassment and sexual assault all occur on the same continuum of behavior. That toleration of harassment within a unit will contribute to an environment that allows sexual assault to occur. They are actually using the phrase “Rape Culture” in our trainings. It pisses off a lot of soldiers to be told that military culture is a rape culture, but if they are pissed, at least we have their attention. The fact that every unit has a Unit Victims Advocate is huge, and the inclusion of a “Restricted Reporting” capability, which doesn’t result in an investigation but does allow the victim to make a confidential report, can make is easier for soldiers who aren’t comfortable making an Unrestricted Report. (In an unrestricted report, it’s almost impossible to keep the victims identity a secret from the unit. The military is just too close. A restricted report tells the CO there was an assault, but not who was involved. It allows the victim to access support via the Victim’s Advocates and can be transitioned to an Unrestricted Report if the victim requests it.)

    So, lots of work to do, some positive steps, and some (trust me) very devoted soldiers working very hard to make it better.