By Katie Ziegler
More than 7,000 of the nation’s 1.8 million female veterans are homeless, four times the rate of civilian women. Furthermore, female veterans have higher rates of unemployment than their civilian counterparts.
Those needs of female veterans were among the topics during a Fall Forum session devoted to state services for veterans co-sponsored by NCSL’s Military and Veterans’ Affairs Task Force and the Women’s Legislative Network.
Lt. Col. Patricia Gaston (U.S. Army Ret.) discussed some of the multiple and nuanced reasons for the disparities between female veterans and civilians. One of the major factors is that female veterans have significant histories of trauma. More than half of the female veterans who responded to a recent survey said that they had experienced trauma or abuse prior to joining the military. The Department of Defense reports that one-in-three military women have experienced Military Sexual Trauma (MST), which includes sexual assault and threatening sexual harassment. These acts of trauma can cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition that is triggered by a terrifying event.
Symptoms of PTSD include severe anxiety, flashbacks, and nightmares, all of which can make it difficult for a woman to reintegrate into civilian society upon leaving the military. Survivors often have difficulty functioning from day to day, and experience high rates of depression and substance abuse. Gaston also noted that female veterans may not self-identify as veterans, and thus not take advantage of available resources, often because services and supports in their communities are tailored (and marketed) toward men.
In 2011, a coalition of community organizations in Albuquerque, N.M., led by the YWCA, opened Henderson House, which provides a place to stay for up to 10 women and their children who would otherwise have been homeless. The facility, the first of its kind in the nation, allows residents to stay at the house for two years, during which time they receive comprehensive services including counseling, education and job placement and training, and budgeting and financial planning. Gaston reported that one of the most important benefits for the women in the program is sharing their stories with the other residents and learning that they are not alone in their struggles. The sense of community that Henderson House provides is invaluable when the women transition out of the program to self-sufficiency.
The state of New Mexico has implemented a number of benefits and programs for its military population, including a disabled veteran property tax exemption; granting in-state tuition for veterans and their families; defining National Guard and Reserves members as veterans (those who served six years or more); and offering specific female veterans license plates. These programs and others are detailed on the New Mexico Department of Veterans’ Services website.
Katie Ziegler is the program manager for the Women's Legislative Network of NCSL.