By Megan Neunan, ARNEWSJuly 21, 2011
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, July 21, 2011) -- “It’s a secret,” said Lisa Bolling. “Women veterans are more likely to become homeless because women veterans are more likely to experience trauma in the military -- rape, molestation, things of that sort.”
Bolling is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. She was homeless for a while, living in temporary shelters. Now she lives with post-traumatic stress disorder which she attributes to sexual assault, and says that she is one of many female veterans with a similar story to tell.
“Majority of the time, the commander is a man,” Bolling continued. “You think that if you tell [about a rape] you’re going to be retaliated against, so you stuff it. And when you get out of the military you don’t really have the self-esteem to go out and look for a job. It’s just a downward spiral and you end up on the street.”
The Women’s Bureau at the Department of Labor reports Women veterans are four times more likely to be homeless than civilian women. They are also four times more likely to be homeless than male veterans. There were more than 10,220 female veterans in shelters between October 2008 and September 2009.
“As we realize that women are four times more likely to become homeless than men veterans -- we always hear about homeless men, but, I mean, look at the rate of homelessness -- women are much more vulnerable,” said Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wis.), co-chair of the Congressional Women’s Caucus. “When we realize that women are nine times more likely to exhibit post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, making them much more likely to have problems with drugs and alcohol, lower economic and educational outcomes, difficulty maintaining stable homes, we understand why the Women’s Bureau has been so adamant.”
Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis, Moore, and retired Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught, celebrated the release of a new web tool Wednesday at Arlington National Cemetery. “Trauma-Informed Care for Women Veterans Experiencing Homelessness: A Guide for Service Providers,” or simply the “Trauma Guide,” will help service providers -- from hospitals to non-profits -- help society’s most vulnerable (and fastest growing) group of veterans re-integrate into civilian life.
This master resource of research, concrete best practices, plus self-assessments for providers can be found at http://www.dol.gov/wb, and is the result of listening sessions at homeless shelters across the nation this year. Each woman veteran shared a unique story.
Vaught, who is now one of the most decorated military women, said she was relegated to a job with few responsibilities when she returned from Vietnam. After serving with the U.S. Military Assistance Command, or MACV, she was assigned to a command that was re-organizing, and she explained the reduced workload made her unhappy.
“I am not a person who does nothing well,” she said. “And I got very frustrated with this whole thing. The only way I could think to get out of it was to volunteer to go back to Vietnam.”
But Vaught quipped she would have risked serious injury doing that -- if her mother found out.
Vaught said the spiral downward to homelessness from the kind of unhappiness she experienced is easy to understand. She shared her story to show that even without sexual assault or other traumas, the transition back home for women packs great challenge, challenge historically ignored or grouped with men’s.
She explained the result of this: It is hard to get women veterans to identify as veterans. If they were not in combat, they downplay their service.
“These women are invisible,” said Moore of homeless veterans. “And one of the reasons they are invisible is that they don’t dare share their trauma and the shame and the blame associated with it. They don’t dare risk people not caring.”
Moore asserted the importance of developing such a tailored resource as the new trauma guide -- the first of its kind -- separate from what the Department of Veterans Affairs provides.
She added it is what is done with the guide that counts, urging providers that “once this is rolled out there, not to have little programs sitting in your waiting rooms for people to collect, but to actually engage, getting the training, being able to identify that woman that is so in need.”
Generally, there was a loud call from all speakers for homeless women veterans to own their experiences. Vaught, for one, made her opinion clear with a call to register, to identify as a veteran.
One way to do that is to register with the Women in Military Service for American Memorial Foundation, or WIMSA, which maintains a data base of women veterans and displays it at the memorial near the entrance of Arlington National Cemetery.
“I know there are some of you who are veterans or are active-duty servicewomen who are not registered. Let me warn you! You must do that or I will chase you down and it will not be pleasant,” she said.
Vaught’s underemployment after Vietnam parallels Bolling’s situation now. Solis told the crowd at Arlington more.
“The fact is women of our military master some of the most advanced technologies, run some of the most complex and expensive operations and have extensive experience managing hundreds of their colleagues,” she said. “In these challenging times, we can’t afford to lose that kind of talent.”
The secretary of labor identified the full cost of veterans being homeless and either under or unemployed. She referred to Bolling, who did technical work with planes in the military, but returned to work as a crossing guard in Washington, D.C.
Bolling became homeless when her 18-year-old foster daughter died of cancer, flaring her PTSD symptoms. Both Vaught and Solis spoke almost interchangeably about homelessness and either unemployment or underemployment, citing “a vicious cycle.”
“We need to make sure they know that recovery is possible,” assured Solis. “Like Lisa says, we need to make sure that all female veterans know that ‘if you keep fighting, it will eventually wear down.’”
The trauma guide is one step to the right kind of help, and should help cut a common occurrence of providers (and veterans) not knowing who is responsible for what, officials said.
“I think this guide is important because many women who suffer trauma -- A, they don’t know about any services that are available. B, if they do, they find maybe a little here, a little here, a little there. This guide will bring it all together,” Bolling said, after the ceremony. “It’s like a one-stop shop.”
Women in Military Service for American Memorial Foundation Inc. reports women are more likely to serve in the Army than in any other service. A roster of U.S. Army sexual assault response coordinators, or SARCs, can be found online to help Soldiers at http://www.sexualassault.army.mil/sarc-roster/. Military OneSource (1.800.342.9647) also provides a range of services, including a suicide-prevention hotline.