Written by William & Mary law student Sarah Kowalkowski

In recent decades, The United States Armed Forces and Department of Veterans Affairs have tried to remedy their history of discriminating against serve members that are not white males. Most recently in 2015, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter announced that all combat roles will be open to women, and United States Army First Lt. Shaye Haver and Capt. Kristen Griest became the first female graduates of the Army’s competitive and challenging Ranger School.[1] In 2011, President Obama formally ended the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that banned openly non-heterosexual individuals from joining the military.[2] Although these policy changes are important and will likely have significant positive effects, minorities still often experience discrimination during and after their period of service. As the Armed Forces continue to implement policies intended to reduce the discrimination faced by women, who make up approximately 15.3% of active-duty service members ,[3] and 11% of veterans,[4] the VA needs to do more for women when they return to civilian life.

In my two semesters as a clinic student, I have heard female veterans express frustration because they felt like they were treated differently than men. In a quote to the New York Times, Kathryn Wirkus, the founder of Women Veterans of Colorado, said, “We are invisible. Women vets come home and we blend back in. . . . We aren’t easily identified by our haircuts or the clothing that we wear. If I walked into a room, nobody would think I was a veteran.”[5] Organizations that work with female veterans, such as the advocacy and assistance group Disabled American Veterans, have also noted that female veterans often do not receive the same levels of care and appreciation as men.[6] Research and statistics indicate that women sometimes require different treatment than men and have different needs as they reintegrate to their lives back home.[7] Although the VA recognizes some of these problems, as its new “I’m One” campaign intended to foster identity and respect for female veterans and encourage more women to self identify as veterans indicates,[8] there is still significant opportunity for progress. In striving to create a system in which all veterans feel equally valued, the VA should pay close attention to and respond to struggles that female veterans face.

The number of homeless female veterans has been growing in part because women face different challenges than men. Many veterans that become homeless face substance abuse or mental illness.[9] Factors such as lack of family housing, difficulty finding well-paying jobs, and military sexual trauma leading to post-traumatic stress disorder are more likely to affect the ability of female veterans to find housing upon their return.[10] Female veterans are more likely to be single parents, but many short-term housing options do not allow families.[11] Although VA statistics indicate that homelessness among veterans has decreased by 36% since 2010,[12] the VA cannot ignore the needs of the female veterans, who are fastest growing group of veterans treated by the VA[13] and the fastest growing segment of the homeless population.[14] To achieve equality among veterans, the VA must ensure that female veterans have the resources they need to thrive.

[1] Matthew Rosenberg & Dave Phillips, All Combat Roles Now Open to Women, Defense Secretary Says, N.Y. Times (Dec. 3, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/04/us/politics/combat-military-women-ash-carter.html.

[2] Elisabeth Bumiller, Obama Ends ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Policy, N.Y. Times (July 22, 2011), http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/23/us/23military.html.

[3] David Johnson & Bronson Stamp, See Women’s Process In The U.S. Military, Time (Sept. 8, 2015), http://labs.time.com/story/women-in-military/.

[4] Helen Thorpe, The V.A.’s Woman Problem, N.Y. Times (Aug. 15, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/opinion/sunday/the-vas-woman-problem.html.

[5] Id.

[6] See generally Women Veterans: The Long Journey Home, Disabled American Veterans (Sept. 24, 2014), https://www.dav.org/wp-content/uploads/women-veterans-study.pdf.

[7] Thorpe, supra note 4.

[8] Elisa Basnight & Patricia Hayes, VA Expanding the Services it Offers to Women, Philadelphia Media Network (Digital), LLC (Sept. 28, 2015, 1:08 AM), http://www.philly.com/philly/opinion/20150928_VA_expanding_the_services_it_offers_to_women.html.

[9] Patricia Leigh Brown, Trauma Sets Female Veterans Adrift Back Home, N.Y. Times (Feb. 27, 2013), http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/28/us/female-veterans-face-limbo-in-lives-on-the-street.html?pagewanted=all.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Homeless Veterans: VA Is Working to End Homelessness Among Veterans, U.S. Dep’t of Veterans Affairs (Jan. 26, 2016), http://www.va.gov/homeless/about_the_initiative.asp.

[13] Thorpe, supra note 4.

[14] Brown, supra note 8.