A leading organization of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans wants the Department of Veterans Affairs to change its motto because, the group’s leaders say, the words first issued by Abraham Lincoln — “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan” — are outdated and, more important, they exclude the many contributions made by military women.
“By excluding women,” Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Executive Director Allison Jaslow wrote in her letter to VA, “it … communicates to women veterans that they are unwelcome outsiders.”
When considered in concert with VA’s most recent veteran suicide statistics, the issue takes on distinct urgency. According to the study, female veterans’ risk for committing suicide is more than double that of American women who have not served in the military. This finding, while troubling, does not exist in a vacuum. A 2015 study by the Mission Continues, a veterans empowerment organization, found that only 58 percent of female service members surveyed agreed when asked whether they felt “respected and valued” as service members.
These studies were published two years apart, but the results go hand in hand. If a woman feels that her service is not valued, her sense of deserving mental health care also will suffer. This is not to say that feeling undervalued necessarily leads to suicidal thoughts, but rather that feeling this way can create barriers to seeking support.
Developing a sense of belonging, through specific outreach from VA and by using more inclusive language in its motto and messaging to veterans, would help close this gap.
The sample size for the Mission Continues survey was small: Only 71 participated. But as a female service member, I can attest that the results ring true. Stories abound of female veterans using parking spaces designated for veterans only to be questioned or berated by someone assuming she could not possibly have served. In the Female Navy Officers Facebook group to which I belong, there’s a thread almost weekly in which women share encounters with people who assume that their husband is in the military, not them.
I still recall driving onto base one morning and getting back my military ID from the civilian security guard who said, “You look pretty today.” If I were in a dress uniform (I wasn’t) and he had said “nice” (he didn’t), maybe I’d have forgiven it. I tried to imagine something like that being said to a man as he came through the base gate, but I just can’t picture it.
Such behavior can be harmful, leaving women with the impression their service isn’t valued. It harms our sense of identity and the prominent role our military service plays in that. It’s not that we require adulation, but rather recognition that our service matters in the same ways it does for men.
Women in the military experience post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety just as men do. They also encounter unique issues. Female service members are more likely to face sexual trauma compared to their male counterparts. And yet most VA resources are still designed with men in mind, as the Mission Continues report found.
“When I went to VA, I wasn’t treated the same,” one survey respondent wrote. “I was always called ‘Mr.’ or asked where my husband was. It made me not want to seek help.”
It should be noted that over the past few years, VA has worked to improve its services, including specialty treatment for post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, depression, suicidal ideation and the effects of sexual trauma. Those were important and necessary advancements. Yet they fail to address the need for support that is tailored specifically to women or to address the feeling of exclusion many experience.
Changing VA’s motto may seem trivial, but it would signal an important step toward promoting inclusivity, eradicating women’s belief that they’re not valued members of the military and veteran communities, and, it is hoped, stemming the unacceptable risk of suicide among this vulnerable demographic.
Cruz is a communications consultant and Navy Reserve officer. She is enrolled in Johns Hopkins University’s master’s in writing program and holds a bachelor’s in political science from Brown University and a master’s in public diplomacy from the University of Southern California. On Twitter: @mcruzmissile.
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