NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — More than 200,000 women have served their county with the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last 11 years in the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
State officials fear that many of these veterans have returned home only to become silent victims of war because they don’t get the help they need on a variety of health, social issues and economical issues.
“We feel we only have a partial grasp of the problem,” state Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, D-Methuen, said in an interview last week.
“Unless they reach out to us, it’s difficult to tabulate how many there are. It’s hard to gauge whether they need additional support or not because veterans are the last folks to ask whether they need additional help. So, it’s incumbent for us to reach out to them first because we have comprehensive services to offer them,” said Campbell, vice chair of the Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs.
Officials estimate anywhere from 15,000 to 26,000 women veterans in Massachusetts – one in 10 who served in the Iraq or Afghanistan conflicts, according to Campbell. There are close to 3,000 women veterans across Essex County.
Women are the fastest growing population of veterans, accounting for 15 percent of the active duty service members and 20 percent of the new recruits, she noted.
The plight of women veterans and the complex challenges they face upon their return home has been an ongoing concern for the state Department of Veterans Services for several years. It has also been a primary area of expertise for Campbell during her time in the state Legislature. She’s a U.S. Army veteran who served eight years of active duty, including two as a paratrooper.
“For most women veterans, the challenges coming home are the same as their male counterparts: difficulty finding a job and adjusting to civilian life without the support of their ‘military family’, and dealing with the wounds of war, both visible and invisible,” Campbell said.
“The Commonwealth recognizes that sometimes women veterans return to civilian life with unique challenges. Among these, are that more are parents, or single parents. Some have experienced sexual trauma. They have unique health care needs,” she said.
“This generation that is serving has been deployed to combat arenas multiple times – more than any generation in the history of our country and we need to take care of them,” Campbell said.
With increased exposure to combat, more women veterans than ever suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.
“There is no front line and no rear any more on the modern battlefield,” Campbell said.
“Wherever you are on that battlefield, it’s pretty constant what you’re exposed to. It applies to both men and women,” she said.
‘A lot of sexual trauma’
Sexual trauma – which includes sexual abuse and sexual harassment – has been a major concern of federal officials in recent years.
As many as one out of three women leaving military service have reported being the victim of some form of sexual abuse. U.S. Defense Department officials estimate there were 9,000 sexual attacks on women in the military last year, but that only 3,191 cases were actually reported.
Women are reluctant to report sex abuse, fearing possible retaliation by their superior male officers. The percentage of these cases being prosecuted has been low, further discouraging women from reporting the abuse.
“There’s been a lot of sexual trauma,” said Susan A. Piazza, 59, of Lawrence, a U.S. Navy veteran during the Vietnam War era.
“During the past several years, there have been numerous high-ranking officers who have been let go because of sexual aggression toward their female subordinates. When it happens to a woman, she feels stupid that it happened,” said Piazza, a longtime officer of the Queen City Chapter #2 of the Disabled American Veterans, which several communities throughout the Merrimack Valley and southern New Hampshire.
“You don’t expect a fellow comrade to take advantage of you. And if you do come forward, you’re disrupting the whole company,” she said.
But Piazza credited Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, D-Lowell, with helping to bring long-overdue reform in the way the Defense Department handles military sex abuse cases.
The Defense STRONG Act, legislation authored by Tsongas and signed into law by the President Obama earlier this year, expanded legal rights and protections for men and women service members who have been the victims of sexual assault.
Piazza cites the lack of housing and daycare facilities as the most glaring needs facing women veterans returning to civilian life.
“For female veterans, a lot of the problems they have coming back are compounded by the children they have,” Piazza said.
“Until the VA starts building more day care centers and housing for women veterans, we’re going to have a problem. A woman can’t seek work or housing without someone taking care of her children,” she said.
When Piazza was in the service, hardly any returning women veterans were married or had children, she recalled.
“Things have changed. Most of the women today are married and have family,” she said.
Campbell agreed that officials need to look at families in addressing problems faced by many women veterans.
“You always need to be cognizant of the fact they have children that are part of that need for support,” she said.
“It’s important to provide a mechanism to bring families together,” Campbell said.
Some efforts made
Unique transitional housing for women is a current focus of the Legislature and the Department of Veteran Affairs, according to Campbell. Current women-only facilities located regionally throughout the Commonwealth in Boston, Chelsea, Jamaica Plains, Worchester, and North Hampton.
“These facilities provide not only temporary housing , but substance abuse treatment programs, job counseling, access to medical care, and community responsibilities aimed at helping women recover from the wounds of war,” Campbell said.
Earlier this year, the state opened a new Women’s Health Clinic at the VA Center in Bedford, which includes private waiting rooms for women, primary health care, mental health and OB/GYN care.
Don Silva, of Lawrence, finance officer and claims service officer of Queen City Chapter #2 of the Disabled American Veterans, said he sees a need for greater involvement by women veterans.
“That’s always been the tendency in the past – few women in military service seldom participate in veterans organizations. They join, but seldom participate,” Silva said.
“It’s all based on membership participation. If you don’t have membership participation, you don’t have a strong voice. The DAV goes out of its way to help women veterans, but the women veterans have also got to participate.” he said.
Silva said a good percentage of veterans claims that his volunteer group assisted in filing involve women.
“Out of 40 claims we have serviced since June, probably about a third are women, recently-discharged and returning veterans right up to spouses of World War II and Korean War veterans,” Silva said.
“Women’s veterans and widows of deceased veterans. You’ve got to include the spouses because they are important in this mess,” he said.
Silva said he sees progress though.
The state DAV elected the first woman to be its state commander, Anita Reed.
Also, for the first time, this year, the Chelsea Soldiers Home is accepting women as residents, he noted.
“That was always a man’s institution,” he said.
“Thank God we have a bunch of guys now who are open-minded. You can’t be close-minded to women veterans,” he said.