More women are serving in the military than ever before. Currently, women comprise about 15 percent of the active duty force, and when they return home many will need help readjusting to civilian life.
More than 40 percent of active duty women have children and more than 30,000 women deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan were single mothers. While it is becoming more common for a woman with children to serve, this wasn’t always the case. For example, when Dottie enlisted in the Navy she was among the first to serve as a mother:
I was married with a child when I was sixteen years old. My husband was abusive and we separated soon after. I really wanted make a better life for me and my daughter and I knew that serving in the military would give me that opportunity.
I met with a Navy recruitment representative but took some time to decide if I wanted to join. When I discussed my plans to enlist with my mother, she talked me out of it.
A few months later, my estranged husband showed up and beat me half to death and I ended up in the hospital. By coincidence, the Navy recruiter called me the next day and told me he had a cancellation and asked if I was still interested in joining. I was at boot camp 48 hours later, bruises from my husband’s fists still on my face. I was running away from my life.
I retained custody of my daughter and brought her with me to my training station. I aced the entrance exam, but even though I scored the highest the others didn’t respect me. I was a black, 19-year-old woman from Compton, California among a group of mostly white men.
The law had been changed to allow women like me to serve, but the station was not equipped to accommodate me. There was no compassion for me as a mother, trying to work a grueling shift schedule around caring for my daughter. It made me look like a bad serviceperson but I was a mother first and foremost.
Even worse was the abuse. I was fondled. I was raped. I was beaten. I didn’t report any of it because I didn’t believe anyone would care.
Many of the brave women who serve in our military are fighting against stacked odds. An astonishing one in five women who serve report experiencing Military Sexual Trauma (MST), but the majority of incidents like Dottie’s go unreported, due to fear of reprisal or being ostracized. The Department of Defense estimates that the actual occurrence of military sexual assault is six times higher than what is reported.
One day, I asked a female commanding officer if there was any way I could adjust my hours because it was too hard to care for my daughter on my current shift. Two days later, when I came in to work she had my discharge papers on her desk. I was told that I was being honorably discharged and would receive all my benefits, but it was a complete surprise.
So I did the only thing I could do – what I had always wanted to do. I used the GI Bill and went to college.
I ended up getting a job as a bus driver in the Los Angeles area and did it for 30 years. I had four more children in that time and I was able to provide my family with everything we needed. I didn’t want to talk about my experiences. I didn’t want anyone to know that I had been raped and fondled.
Women who experience MST are nine times more likely to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many sufferers of PTSD experience symptoms for years without realizing or understanding what those symptoms mean.
I retired in 2008 and bought a small mobile home. Not long after, taxes, the recession and a stroke that put me out of commission for a year drained me of all my retirement savings. I eventually got my job back as a bus driver – but as a “new” employee, at a drastically lower salary.
As hard as I was working, I wasn’t earning enough money to pay the rent on the land my mobile home was on. I eventually told the landlord I would surrender my property. The sheriff came and removed me and my family from the house.
Many homeless female veterans avoid seeking help. Some don’t self-identify as veterans; many who experienced MST would rather forget their years of service than admit what happened to them.
U.S.VETS operates the ADVANCE program specifically for female veterans at their sites in Long Beach, California and Barbers Point, Hawaii. Through the Renew sexual trauma treatment program in partnership with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), ADVANCE provides specialized care to women who have served – including women with children and those who have experienced MST. For women like Dottie, ADVANCE can be a lifesaver.
One day I met a young lady on my bus who told me she knew someone who worked at U.S.VETS helping veterans find homes. She gave me the phone number and I got in touch with the U.S.VETS in Long Beach about the ADVANCE program. I stopped by one day to meet with the case managers and they told me they had a bed for me.
I moved into the U.S.VETS Long Beach location and started attending therapy. Through one-on-one therapy, I’ve started opening up wounds from decades ago and have learned how to deal with them.
Presently, there are about 40 women enrolled in the ADVANCE and Women with Children programs at U.S.VETS Long Beach, representing every branch of service.
While each of these women have different backgrounds and different stories, they have a common denominator – they served our country, and they deserve our help.
I’ve always been the anchor for everybody else, and now I’m learning how to do that for myself.
I’m very grateful that I met the young woman on the bus who gave me the phone number for U.S.VETS. All of the help and support I’ve received has been phenomenal.
Stephen J. Peck heads U.S.VETS, the nation's largest nonprofit providing housing and other essential services to at-risk veterans for 21 years.