No Thanks From an Ungrateful Nation: The Surge of Female Vets Living on the Streets
The female veteran had been raped twice in the service. After her discharge, she experienced depression. “For a year, I only woke up to eat and drink whiskey. … Not till later did I realize it came from sexual trauma,” she said.
Sexual assault is a major reason for the growing number of homeless female vets. In this particular case, the homeless woman was able to rebuild her life. I heard about it when I talked to her and two other female vets recently at a home provided by New Directions, a Los Angeles organization that offers substance abuse and mental health treatment, as well as transitional housing for homeless veterans or those at risk of ending up on the street.
Although the homeless population has declined slightly in some areas, the number of homeless female veterans is rising. These women are among the overlooked toll of a military expansion that grew in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and will continue if the advocates of those failed combat adventures succeed in persuading President Barack Obama to try another one.
Even if that doesn’t happen, the numbers of women in the armed services, homeless female vets and victims of sexual trauma will increase. Concern for the military is not high up on the progressive agenda. But in this case, it should be. The fate of women in the military mirrors what is happening to women in the rest of society, but in an extreme way.
A federal official told me that female vets constitute 15 percent of the military homeless, although figures vary. But everyone familiar with the situation agrees the number is rising. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans found that the number of homeless female veterans had doubled from 1,380 in 2006 to 3,328 in 2010. “They are now the fastest growing segment of the homeless population,” Patricia Leigh Brown wrote in The New York Times last year. The number of homeless male vets has dropped 24 percent since 2010 to almost 50,000 as of January, according to federal officials.
The rape victims suffer from a form of post-traumatic stress disorder known as MST, military sexual trauma. While they are entitled to medical and psychological care at a Department of Veterans Affairs facility, they find it difficult to obtain something more important: service-connected compensation, a pension given to victims of PTSD. That’s because they have trouble convincing a skeptical VA that their rapes are as destructive as psychological trauma from the battlefield.
Attorney Melissa Tyner, senior staff director of the Homeless Veterans Project for Los Angeles’ Inner City Law Center, told me that the officials in charge of these benefits “are largely male, and a woman who is a survivor is subject to scrutiny where they put her through a credibility analysis that is as unlawful as it is offensive. … Having to speak to a nameless, faceless bureaucracy and being denied, called liars, being told their assaults never happened is horrifying,” she said. “It’s like getting raped all over again.”
I sat around a table with the vets at the New Directions home that shelters these women. New Directions asked that I use pseudonyms.
Despite what happened to them, they were reluctant to criticize the military, for which they had volunteered with high hopes. Their military training is deeply embedded. Yet as I listened to them and did additional reporting on the subject, I saw that the system was stacked against them by a male-dominated Defense Department and VA. The government forces women, and men, to meet an almost impossibly high standard to prove rape and draw the benefits owed them.
Lorraine served in the Air Force for two years. “My goal was to make the military my career,” she said. But that ended when “I was raped in the service.”
“You are away from home, there are weeks of training,” she said. “You get there and [the others] are like your family.” It is, she said, “being victimized by one of your own.” After she left the Air Force, she stayed in Texas, doing “a lot of drinking, as much drinking as I could.” Her father found her help and she ended up at New Directions, where she is a member of Alcoholics Anonymous and has had 18 months of therapy. She eventually received a pension.
Jean had a different story. She hadn’t been raped, but had been psychologically wrecked by a military benefit system that, at the least, seemed tilted against her.She had served in the Air Force for 13 years. Married and with a family, she decided to get out and be a full-time mother. Her marriage broke up. Her husband, still in the service, had a steady income. She had none. The court awarded him custody of their two children. She fell apart and became homeless, occasionally staying with friends or relatives. Her troubles, the loss of her children and any income, seemed service connected but when she applied for benefits — a pension — “they denied my claim and said I was not eligible for benefits.”
Like the others, it looked to me as if she was a victim of a system that favored men.
Sharon McClendon, program manager at the New Directions home, sat with us while the women told their stories. She said female vets, like the three at the table, “are not informed about the array of services that are available. You have a lot of female benefits.” Jean, for example, received no briefing on what she was entitled to when she left the service — knowledge that might have spared her some of the fallout from her failed marriage.
Obtaining the most important benefit — the service connected compensation or pension — is an incredibly difficult process that can take years. It reminds me of the Circumlocution Office of Charles Dickens’ novel “Little Dorrit,” a symbolic state agency dedicated to stopping the British government from doing anything and whose motto was “HOW NOT TO DO IT.”
Ted Puntillo, director of veterans services for Solano County, Calif., explains the VA procedures:
The vet files a claim with a local VA office. If it is rejected, as is often the case with sexual trauma, the vet can appeal but must provide documentation. Eventually, the case finds its way to the Board of Veterans’ Appeals and the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. There are time deadlines and if a vet misses one, he or she must file a new claim with documentation. These appellate bodies meet in Washington and, Puntillo warns, “this appeal process can be very lengthy, complicated and stressful for the veteran.” Vets are advised to have a lawyer. The process can take up to four years.
Puntillo told me on the phone that he thinks the situation is improving for women. But women seeking benefits for assaults that happened years before and “have no corroboration … have run against that brick wall unless you have medical evidence [from] those times,” he said.
I called Vince Kane, director of the VA’s National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans in Washington, D.C. He told me that VA psychiatrists treat military sexual trauma cases, although he didn’t deal with the difficulties MST victims have in obtaining a pension.
“We have more women in service than [at any other time] in history, particularly young vets serving in Afghanistan and Iraq exposed to trauma. It’s something we have to be more skilled at,” he said.
Puntillo said, “It is the largest growing demographic of those going into the service.” Why? “It’s a good, good career path and it is an area where they have been shut out.”
When I talked to the women at New Directions, I was moved by their stories and impressed by their strength and resiliency. We justifiably focus on abuse of women in the civilian workplace and on college campuses. The female veterans of the armed services, as well as the growing number on active duty, deserve our attention too.Wait, before you go…
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