Sometimes women veterans feel they are hiding in plain sight.
“I went to the college financial aid office and asked about veterans benefits,” said one woman Army veteran. “The man there reflexively asked, ‘Dad or husband?’ ”
In the U.S., of the roughly 22 million Americans with military experience, a tenth of them are women, and women comprise more than 14 percent of individuals actively serving.
In just Harris, Fort Bend and Galveston counties, 18,225 women veterans live and work, struggle and succeed. As of 2014, Texas had the highest number of women veterans of all U.S. states – more than 177,000 – and it has the fastest growing population of women veterans.
More than half these veterans served in one of the Gulf Wars. These women veterans returned home with advanced leadership skills and specialized training. Unfortunately – similar to male veterans – many also returned home with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), often the result of military sexual trauma (MST).
Because they have been trained to “tough it out” while on active duty, many women veterans find it difficult to seek help for these mental health issues – resulting in what is described as a “staggering” number of suicides among women veterans. Young women veterans face the highest risk.
Women veterans also face a lack of adequate and affordable childcare, safety concerns, MST repercussions, job-search roadblocks, homelessness and more. One woman veteran was living in a truck with one of her children when someone referred her the Lotus Project, a Catholic Charities program serving only women veterans. She says the Lotus Project literally saved her life.
“When I came home, I had no apartment, no job and no idea how to look for one,” said the Army veteran. “The Lotus Project gave us a home, helped me go back to school, helped me create stability for my children and gave me hope when I was lost.”
Across the country, transitional housing for women veterans is scarce – and even more so for women with children. The Catholic Charities Lotus Project is one of the unique programs that provides housing for women veterans – even those with children – and provides a network of support services to help them rebuild their lives and move forward after their military service.
As a city and a nation, citizens must do a better job honoring and helping the courageous, strong, talented women veterans.
- First, Americans need to truly “see” them and thank them for their service. This could mean a personal thanks and an offer to buy her a cup of coffee – or encourage your local representatives to designate a special month honoring women veterans’ service. If she’s struggling, help her connect to resources and show her you care.
- Second, businesses need to help women veterans translate their skills to the workplace. More programs and business owners need to provide excellent career advising and affordable childcare options so they can transition from success in the service to success in our city.
- Third, lawmakers and military chiefs must have zero tolerance for military sexual trauma and sexual harassment in all branches of the military, and lawmakers and agency managers must invest in the support services women veterans need to overcome the tragic and devastating results of MST and PTSD.
- Fourth, lawmakers need to invest in housing options for returning women veterans with children that ensure no veteran ever has to sleep in a car or risk losing her children because she faces homelessness.
Let’s start a movement to support America’s women veterans, to lift them up and make their lives better. To all women veterans across Greater Houston and around the country, thank you!
Olivia Christina Bush is program director for Women Veterans Services of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. Military service is a longstanding tradition in her family, including her sister.
Originally published in the Houston Chronicle.