When Veterans Day was started in 1918 as a way to honor World War I vets, it was originally called Armistice Day. Back then, even though women served in the military, they weren’t officially recognized as veterans and given veterans benefits (that wouldn’t happen for another quarter century). Times have obviously changed. Today, women serve in all branches of the armed forces, and constitute over 15 percent of the veteran population.
Despite Donald Trump's constant harping on how bad our veterans are treated, we do pretty well overall -- but homelessness is a glaring exception. Although declining slightly in the past two years, it’s still way too high for both male and female vets . And this is one place where women are catching up to men. Men constitute 84.9 percent of active duty forces, and make up 91 percent of the homeless veteran population. For women, the numbers are 15.1 percent and 9 percent respectively.
But the reasons are different.
Substance abuse and mental illness are leading causes for male returnees. Women can suffer from those too, and they also face barriers like a harder time finding a job and/or VA supported family housing. But unlike the men, homelessness for our female ex-soldiers actually takes root before they leave the military. Experts agree that a huge contributing factor is sexual trauma from rapes and other assaults during their service. Because they couldn’t report the crimes, or were punished when they did, many women suffer from post traumatic stress disorder and lose their jobs, families, and ultimately their homes.
According to the latest study of sexual assault commissioned by the Pentagon, 18,900 servicemembers – the vast majority women – said they were sexually assaulted in 2014, but only 6131 were officially reported. It’s pretty easy to see why.
Victims must report crimes to those who oversee their careers, and commanders have final say over whether criminal charges are brought in military courts. That means all too often attackers get off with a slap on the wrist, or the “she asked for it” defense is accepted. Even if they’re convicted by a jury, commanders have the power to unilaterally overturn the verdict.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), who has had a bill floating around the Senate for years that would take the decision out of the chain of command and put in the hands of independent military prosecutors, is appropriately disgusted with the latest report. Disputing Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s claim of significant progress, she stated "Contrary to mission accomplished, we are right back on 2010 levels for sexual assault. This is a system where 19,000 men and women a year -- an average of 52 new cases every day -- face sexual assault or unwanted sexual contact."
While the brass drags it’s feet on long-overdue change, too many of our female vets are still falling into homelessness. How many more will sleep in shelters or the streets until justice is served?