Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Honoring and Advocating for Women Veterans on November 11

Honoring and Advocating for Women Veterans on November 11

On Veterans Day we honor the service of our veterans. But we should also focus on the sacrifice and the service of our women veterans and service members. The number of female veterans has soared since 1990, from 4 percent of all veterans to 8 percent today, or about 1.8 million. More than 280,000 female soldiers have been returned from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade. 

Recently Governor Cuomo signed a bill that will help New York’s women veterans economically. The Veterans’ Pension Bill expanded pension benefits to public workers who served in the military, providing a pension credit to veterans who are now New York state residents after five years of public service. Previously only veterans who have served in specific conflicts receive up to additional three years of service credit in the pension system.

Now veterans who served in Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Korean DMZ who were not eligible for the military service credit, or women who served in non-combat roles, are eligible for the credit. 

Women veterans have raised concerns that the Veteran’s Administration has been slow to change. The VA’s health care system that has for generations catered almost exclusively to men has been slow to recognize needs of that the 2.3 million female veterans represent the fastest-growing population turning to the agency.

About 200,000 women are currently serving in the active duty U.S. military, about 14 percent of the military population. That number is expected to double within the next decade. There have been some real gains for women service members, especially as the military has recognized that the work-life-family balance needs to be addressed.

Through a program called the Career Intermission Program, service members can take one to three years off – while retaining benefits and receiving a small percentage of their usual monthly pay. For those who take time off, their career is effectively frozen while they are away, but they are not penalized when they come back and seek future promotions.

The Navy has doubled the maternity leave for all female service members while extending hours at Navy and Marine Corps childcare centers across those services. About 91,000 of active duty female service members were married as of January, with about 27,000 of those in the Navy and Marine Corps, so child care and maternity leave are key services.

The Army issued a service-wide breastfeeding policy, making it the last military branch to implement guidelines for supporting nursing service members with infants.

Marines have been challenged on their unconscious prejudices and presuppositions as women get the opportunity to become marine grunts for the first time. The Marine Corps rolled out mandatory training for all Marines prior to the first female rifleman hit boot camp, aiming to set conditions for a smooth transition and head off cultural resistance.

One of the visible cultural changes has been a growing understanding of the issues of women veterans as they have been elected to Congress. There are now four female combat veterans in Congress. And they have contributed to the discussions about the changing face of the Armed Forces, which is now officially open to women joining combat units across the board.

Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), a former Black Hawk helicopter pilot, is newly elected to the US Senate from her House of Representatives seat. She joins Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) in the Senate. In the House, Rep. Martha McSally (R-AZ), and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) have also served in the military, giving them a unique perspective on women veteran issues.

Speaking of the election, there is concern from LBGTQ Americans that the election of Donald Trump will set back the progress the country has made on social issues revolving around gender and sexuality and identity. The Pentagon had announced June 30 that it was ending the ban on transgender people’s ability to serve openly in the U.S. military.

The Pentagon also said transgender service members will receive the same medical coverage as any other military member. Service members’ health coverage will include hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery, if doctors deem those procedures necessary. Will that policy continue under a Trump Administration?

Also in June, the U.S. Marine Corps changed more than a dozen occupational titles to make them gender-neutral as the military aims to integrate more women into combat roles. The decision removed the word "man" from 19 job titles. Roles such as "basic infantryman" and "antitank missileman" will become "basic infantry Marine" and "antitank missile gunner." Will the military continue down this path or revert to a more sexist work place?

One issue of concern to veterans and all Americans is the on-going prevalence of food insecurity among military households. Households with veterans who served since 1975 are at higher risk of food insecurity than non-veteran households and households with veterans that served prior to 1975, according to a study in Public Health Nutrition. Five percent of military households with children five years old or younger have experienced food insecurity.

Certainly the issue of sexual assault in the military (co-called friendly fire) has been getting a lot of attention under President Obama. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has been a frequent critic of the military’s response to the issue. She released a report last May that said the military justice system remains dysfunctional in handling sexual-assault cases and only prosecuted 22 percent of the 329 cases her office reviewed as part of an investigation focusing on just four military bases.

Will the military continue to try to make progress on this and other critical issues for women and all service members under a Trump Administration? That is one of the things we’ll all be watching.

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