Women Veterans Face Unique Obstacles, Needs

This segment was originally produced for KQED-TV. You can watch the full version here.

JIM LEHRER: For those stations not taking a pledge break, the NewsHour continues with the challenges female veterans face after returning from war. It's part of our series NewsHour Connect, which showcases public media reporting from around the nation.

Tonight's story comes from Scott Schafer of KQED San Francisco.

SCOTT SCHAFER: Star Lara grew up in Roswell, New Mexico, and was on her way to managing a fast food restaurant. But a conversation with a friend changed all that.

STAR LARA, former soldier: And he goes, "You know what I just did?" "What?" He was, like, "I just joined the Army. Do you want to join?" "All right."

And that's how I ended up in the Army for 12 years.

SCOTT SCHAFER: Star joined the Army in 1995 and eventually ended up in Iraq. She's one of almost 200,000 women veterans in California.

STAR LARA: It fit my personality. It fit my drive. It fit my enthusiasm. It gave me so many opportunities that I could never have achieved anywhere else. It just — the lady was that perfect fit for me.

SCOTT SCHAFER: But with all the opportunities the military offered, it didn't necessarily prepare Star, or other women veterans, for the aftermath.

STAR LARA: You came from being very independent to somehow emotionally co-dependent on those that are around you for that — that support. You become distracted from things that are happening back at home. It's difficult to maintain relationships with loved ones in the United States or anywhere else.

SCOTT SCHAFER: When she was in Iraq, Star went from speaking to her mother once a week to not calling her for eight months. And while isolation from family and friends is something all service members deal with, Star says there's something different in the way women handle the experience of war.

STAR LARA: I think that men and women process information differently and we suppress information differently. Women suppress it immediately, but because of needing to find a way back to normalcy.

SCOTT SCHAFER: Men and women also have significantly different needs after they're discharged from the military, especially when it comes to child care and mental health.

Caitlin Hasser is a psychiatrist at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center and the director of the Women's Mental Health Clinic.

DR. CAITLIN HASSER, psychiatrist, Women's Mental Health Clinic, San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center: We know women veterans have higher rates of single parenthood than male veterans and there are higher rates of homelessness and — and then also a lot of different societal roles. The average woman veteran I see is usually juggling about 50 things. And her own needs are often not at the top of that priority list.

SCOTT SCHAFER: Women make up about 14 percent of all service members, but they are at greater risk of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, than their male counterparts.

DR. CAITLIN HASSER: One of the — the traumas with the highest rate for developing PTSD is sexual trauma. And women have much higher rates of exposure to sexual trauma, and, therefore, in part, have higher rates of developing PTSD.

SCOTT SCHAFER: The Department of Veterans Affairs says nearly a quarter of women veterans have reported sexual assault by their peers while in the military. The Pentagon reports a 25 percent increase in military sexual trauma among women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, things like sexual assault and harassment.

And yet, despite these increasing numbers, most of these cases still go unreported.

DIANE WILLIAMSON, former soldier: Even after all these years, I still find it hard to believe that it — that it hap — it happened, because I'm such a different person now.

SCOTT SCHAFER: Diane Williamson served in the Army from 1976 to 1979. She says her commanding officer raped her in front of her 6-month-old daughter.

DIANE WILLIAMSON: I — I just think it was one of the classic cases of him taking advantage of his position and me not knowing or learning the ways of how the Army is as far as in relationship to women.

And so after it happened and I left the service, not a whole lot of people knew about it. I just — and I never told my family. So self-esteem was like shot.

SCOTT SCHAFER: Like many women veterans, Diane suppressed her experience for almost 30 years. She didn't know how to deal with the rape or what her rights were, especially within the confines of the military.

DIANE WILLIAMSON: You know, you had to use like their lawyers and their — their rules and the — the UCMJ, you know, military justice, and certain things that are done. And that's a way of, I think, a sense of control and not on — not something you can control. You have to use what's there.

SCOTT SCHAFER: It's not a level playing field.


SCOTT SCHAFER: When women find their way to resources like the Department of Veterans Affairs, more obstacles are often in their way.

DR. CAITLIN HASSER: It can be very triggering to come to the V.A. for a woman who has experienced sexual trauma. This is, in part, because the VA Is a reminder of the military, where the sexual trauma occurred. It's, in part, because it's still a very male dominated environment.

SCOTT SCHAFER: The VA has created a national military sexual trauma support team to do staff outreach and education and advocate for patients.

CHERYL WENELL: I think the VA, unfortunately, hasn't had the best reputation in the past for — for caring for women veterans. And I think we are intent to change that.

SCOTT SCHAFER: Cheryl Wenell is the women's program manager at the VA Medical Center in San Francisco.

CHERYL WENELL, women's program manager, Veterans Affairs Medical Center, San Francisco: In the next 15 years or so, the number of women veterans in general will be doubling, even though the number of female veterans will actually be decreasing.

SCOTT SCHAFER: The women's clinic is trying to address physical and mental health needs with internal medicine specialists — social workers and psychiatrists, all in one clinic, while trying to remove some of the barriers that have stopped women from getting health care in the past.

CHERYL WENELL: Twenty years ago, they — they would be in a position where they would — might be sitting alone in a waiting room and with the — with the waiting room full of men, as opposed to now, they have a special clinic dedicated to them. They have special services, special groups that are dedicated to them.

SCOTT SCHAFER: And non-profits like Swords to Plowshares, where Star Lara works, help veterans get back on their feet.

STAR LARA: I would like to see it become a process of giving back, so that you reach the female veterans, give them a hand up and put them in a position to where they can turn around and do the same, not only to female veterans, but all veterans. That would be my — my passion, to see us all as a community of veterans helping veterans.