- - Thursday, June 12, 2014

This is Army Week, the 239th anniversary of the Army’s founding, and it offers an opportunity to recognize the extraordinary service of female veterans such as myself — 2.2 million and counting — and the unique challenges we face on active duty and after we leave the service. Women in the military services once were limited to support roles and not assigned to front line combat.

But while most women in uniform still occupy support roles — such as critically important jobs in aircraft maintenance, logistics and communications — the fact is that in modern wars like ours in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are no front lines. I am one of many female veterans who have been wounded in firefights and have returned home with physical and psychological injuries. There is nothing unusual about women in combat anymore.

What is unusual about servicewomen is the hardship many of us encounter when we leave the service. I work for the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes, created to assist wounded veterans. We offer help to all wounded veterans, but in recent years, we have become increasingly aware of the unique challenges facing female veterans.

The shameful epidemic of sexual harassment of female service members, including rape and gender-based discrimination, was one I did not personally experience, but it underscores a basic defect in the male-dominated military services. Too many soldiers and officers turn a blind eye to abuse of female comrades, as do many senior commanders. Abuse has become so commonplace that the services have added a new category of disability, Military Sexual Trauma (MST) to that of PTSD.

It would be difficult to overstate the impact of this phenomenon on the morale of our armed services, and the lives of individual female service members who have been abused.

Military service is built on mutual trust that is absolutely essential when the bullets begin to fly. All military personnel, male and female, need to know their comrades are there backing them up every step of the way. If there is a problem, they need to know their commanding officers will intervene and deal with it. But when they are abused by fellow service members and their senior officers sweep their complaints under the rug, the trust is compromised — and with it the effectiveness of our military forces.

A growing problem among female veterans who have been wounded in combat or abused by fellow service members is homelessness. Data show that female veterans are four times as likely as males to be homeless. The trauma of sexual abuse is one reason, as is the loss of trust in the military hierarchy. Another is the reluctance of many female veterans to challenge decisions of the establishment. And, of course, female veterans are much more likely than their male counterparts to bear primary responsibility for raising children. The soaring divorce rate among veterans that ranges up to 80 percent is also a factor because women almost invariably end up shouldering most of the economic burden.

Our first challenge should be a dynamic campaign throughout all of the military services to eradicate sexual discrimination of all forms, and to hold senior officers accountable it. In particular, female veterans who have been traumatized need effective programs to provide them financial support and opportunities to acquire the education and training they need to make a successful transition to civilian life. Volunteer groups like ours are making substantial contributions to this cause, and are always looking for ways to do more. For example, we recently helped fund a facility providing transitional housing to homeless female veterans in the nation’s capital.

But the government itself has a profound obligation to recognize the specific challenges faced by female veterans and do everything possible to assist and support these heroes who have sacrificed so much for our country, and received so little recognition and gratitude.

Army Sgt. Mary Jessie Herrera (ret.) is a field representative for the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes.