- - Sunday, November 8, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Like most patriotic Americans, I was proud to learn last August that two women — Capt. Kristin Griest and Lt. Shaye Haver — had earned their black and gold Ranger tabs to join the U.S. Army’s most prestigious unit. For many years, women have been welcomed into the military services which are ever pressed to find more recruits, but until recently they have been officially banned from front line combat operations. That distinction has gradually yielded to battlefield reality — in the war against terrorists, there are no front lines. The presence of women among the Rangers serves to underscore the reality of coed combat.

Today, women account for nearly 15 percent of all our military forces and they are vital to our nation’s ability to defend itself. You would think that with 21 million Americans aged 17-21 our military would have an ample pool of manpower to draw from, but that is not the case. Even if all of them wanted to enlist, 9.5 million would fail rudimentary academic qualification either because they had dropped out of school or because they cannot perform basic math calculations. Another 7 million would be disqualified because they are obese, have criminal records, have drug issues or bear tattoos on their hands or faces. That leaves only about 4.5 million eligible candidates for military service and most of them are pursuing higher education or are otherwise disinclined to join the armed services. This year, as in most years, the military services had to scramble to make their quotas for recruitment.

The American people profess great affection for their military and well they should because it is a tiny sliver of the population — less than 1 percent — that is bearing the burden of national defense. That disproportionate responsibility says something troubling about our commitment to our country. We can only thank God so many women are picking up the slack. Were it not for women, all of the services would be short-handed.

The women are serving, they are fighting and they — like their male counterparts — are coming home wounded, physically and mentally. Today there are 2.2 million female veterans. They comprise about 8 percent of the overall veteran population, but that share is expected to increase to 16 percent by 2035.

Like all the veterans coming home from the battlefields bearing the scars of war, female veterans must contend with long waits to for their paperwork to be processed while they struggle to pay their bills and readjust to civilian society. In my work, I have come to know and admire many of these women when we reach out to help them make the transition, learn to cope with their physical and psychic injuries, and make new lives for themselves.

In our work, we are encountering a disturbingly high level of homelessness among wounded female veterans. At a time when the overall veteran homeless rate is declining, female veteran homelessness is increasing from about 1,400 in 2006 to just over 3,300 in 2010. Overall, the homelessness rate for female veterans is four times that of men.

And we have reason to believe the actual problem is even worse than that. Many of the homeless female veterans are engaging in what is called “couch surfing,” as they crash with friends and relatives here and there, doing what they can to keep a roof over their heads and often for their children as well.

In our experience, wounded female veterans are more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress than men and also to be victims of sexual abuse. They are more often burdened with responsibility for small children that imposes tremendous demands on their resources and time, making it more difficult for them to find productive work in the civilian world.

In response to this growing crisis, two years ago we gave a $17,000 grant — bringing our total contribution to more than $60,000 — to help establish the Female Veterans With Children Transitional Housing Facility in Washington, D.C. It consists of two houses — the smaller big enough for six veterans and the larger for 13 female veterans with children. On the day of the dedication, I met one of the veterans, Franselene Clark, who like many returning veterans was traumatized and bewildered. But having a home helped Franselene regain control of her life. She recently married and is well on her way to achieving a nursing degree.

The wounded veterans — male and female — are the best of us. They have borne the battle on our behalf and now need our support. It is frankly amazing to me how far a little support can go in helping these worthy people regain control of their lives and resume productive places in our society. Veterans Day provides us all a solemn opportunity to consider how fortunate we are to live in a free society and how much we owe to the veterans who safeguarded our freedoms.

David Walker is president and CEO of the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes.

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