Women, many once thought, would never make good soldiers. They were too squeamish or would not be able to perform those tasks requiring muscular strength. Although the concept is obsolete, female veterans still face obstacles when their duty is up.
According to a series of in-depth reports by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, women veterans are the fastest growing segment of the veteran population, and their numbers are expected to more than double in the next 15 years. But in a system built for treating men, women face fragmented services, a lack of knowledge about their eligibility and dramatically different civilian employment experiences than men, according to some women who have served. And while the consequences of combat on female veterans are still largely unknown, they can be doubly impacted when they marry military men, these veterans say.
Lafayette resident and Navy Desert Storm veteran Donna Cardosa, 45, knows the hardships firsthand.
“You come home and you have to go find it (services). You go somewhere and they give you the runaround. They ask if you’re mentally OK,” Cardosa says. “Veterans just want to come home. Nobody will say ‘I don’t feel right.’ After three or four weeks is when they need to ask. Is there a stigma attached? Absolutely. You will be deemed unfit for duty. It’s detrimental. You suck it up and soldier through.”
The Army’s Mental Health Advisory Team found that female soldiers are no more vulnerable than male soldiers in how combat can affect their mental health. But IAVA says it is still unknown whether women suffer more often from post-traumatic stress disorder than male soldiers or whether they are more likely to seek help for the condition.
Cardosa enjoyed her military service and says she is OK, but her husband is not.
“It took my husband four hours to sign in at the VA clinic in Lafayette. They filled out a bunch of papers,” she says. “My husband needs help.”
Former military communications specialist Suzanne Guillory, 57, was once married to a Vietnam veteran, but when he returned, she says, he didn’t want to work or take care of the children, left his family for good five years ago and doesn’t keep in touch.
“I had to make a choice and just soldier on,” she says.
Although resolute, Guillory still worries about him. “I know he’s out there.”
IAVA reports that while female veterans earn statistically more than their non-veteran peers — military training and experience translate into higher earnings than women with high school diplomas can normally expect — it does not hold true when compared with male veterans.
While women’s non-combat job skills transfer more readily, on average female veterans earn $10,000 less than their male counterparts. These lower incomes may be a factor in why female veterans are less likely to be able to afford housing than male veterans, placing them at significant risk for homelessness.
For homeless female veterans with children, programs have been slow to materialize and resources difficult to coordinate.
Forty-two-year-old Hayley Lejeune has fared better, although she is in need of a hip replacement, something her physical therapist recommends she have done outside the VA healthcare system. A former Army intelligence analyst who is now an architecture student at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, she says she is still transitioning.
“The army is the most inefficient organization in the world,” says Lejeune.”It’s frustrating.”
Lejeune did her basic training five years ago during a narrow window of opportunity when the Army had extended its age limits. She credits much of her positive post-military experience to UL’s Veterans Office.
“The website is easier but you have to be tech savvy,” she says. “It’s not user friendly.”
Nicole Lopez, 33, is a former Army generator mechanic whose work now involves sales and events. Unable to find work as a civilian in her field because of her gender, she says she had to find another niche. She subsequently joined the American Legion and now works for veteran placement while lobbying for mental health services.
Lopez says she got excellent care with TriCare (active duty military care) and while access to medical services is a primary obstacle for female veterans, they also experience other bureaucratic difficulties, such as pay issues, government notices to pay back money, overpayments and issues concerning equipment. “I just served my country,” says Lopez. “What do I owe for?”
Few shed the experience along with the uniform. Recruited to the military by a friend’s uncle, 66-year-old Navy nurse Marlene Foreman was an officer during the Vietnam era and is now a coordinator for hospice. Foreman still struggles with her memories and says veterans will talk to veterans before they’ll talk to someone else.
“In my father’s final days, he’d call for ‘his group,’” she says. “He meant his outfit in Italy during WWII.”
While physical wounds are one thing, it’s the mental ones that are the issue for all.
“Of all the soldiers I’ve spoken with, it’s the biggest issue,” says Lopez. “It should be included in the debriefing. It would save more marriages and families. That’s what killed me. That sealed what I want to do.”