22 per day—the suicide rate for veterans—not just male veterans. Women veterans commit suicide at the same rate as their male counterparts. Bet you never thought of that. I’ll bet when you think of veteran suicide, you picture a man, right? Those are the images we see in the media, but more than 200,000 women have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Plenty of these women have seen combat. They’re pilots, special ops, attached to engineer units, intel gatherers: they see and do everything their brothers-in-arms do.
Here at the National Veterans Foundation we get calls from women vets and their families. Coming home for them is, in some ways, different. According to Kristine Hesse, our women veterans coordinator, women are not as likely to self-identify as vets. Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, writing in the Los Angeles Times on June 11, said the same thing. Women veterans move from a certain invisibility in the military straight into another kind of invisibility here at home. Lemmon tells a story of a female vet who got a nasty note on her windshield when she parked in a spot reserved for veterans.
When we do think of women vets, it’s often as victims of military sexual trauma, MST, an issue for many women (and also men) in the armed forces. Our crisis hotline LifeLine for Vets has fielded calls from women struggling with the aftermath of MST. The VA is trying to offer more services tailored to women and to increase awareness of female vets, but progress is slow and the women vets mistrustful, often because of biased thoughtlessness. A Navy vet reported that the VA insisted on referring to her as “Mister.”
Women have the same difficulty finding employment after the military, translating their MOS to civilian- speak. Like male vets they are trying to identify resources and navigate a complex system to apply for benefits they’ve earned. Women with children are confronted with trying to find safe, affordable housing for themselves and their children—difficult to impossible in large urban areas like Los Angeles. We worked with one female vet for months trying to get her into housing. She eventually gave up because there was no affordable housing in her area.
When these brave, accomplished women volunteered to serve this nation and underwent rigorous training to do so, they didn’t think “equality” was going to look like this. I wish it didn’t. I’d like to see that 22 suicides become a zero. I have to think that improving the delivery of human services would help that happen. Be sure to catch that word human. That includes every one of us. If you can offer a job, a home, a helping hand…a smile, even…do it. We have a responsibility to our vets. If you know a woman vet who needs help, give us a call: 888.777.4443.