American Legion staff in Washington, D.C., hosted a women veterans focus group Nov. 29-30 to discuss key issues affecting women veterans and servicemembers.
The 20-person group included representatives from community outreach organizations, the departments of Labor, Defense and Veterans Affairs, and other stakeholders, who discussed the results of a women veterans survey that the Legion conducted in January. The survey indicated that many women veterans have encountered gender-specific problems at VA medical centers, and only about 25 percent of those eligible are actually enrolled in VA's health-care system.
The group noted that many women veterans perceive VA medical center staff as "not friendly." VA has begun to change its traditionally male-oriented culture through the "Herstory" campaign, the "I Care" initiative, and other programs intended to get VA employees to treat all of its patients with equal courtesy and sensitivity.
Denise Williams, deputy director of the Legion's Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, shared an incident where a VA staffer called out for "Mr. Williams" in the waiting room. "Many of VA's workers assume that patients are always male," Williams said. "This is the kind of mindset that needs to be changed."
Amanda Leigh, the Legion's women veterans outreach coordinator, recalled that she had been asked for the last four digits of her husband's Social Security Number at two different VA facilities — one in Washington and another in Wisconsin. "This indicates to me that VA is still in need of a culture change when it comes to the treatment of women veterans," Leigh said.
Military sexual trauma (MST) was another topic the group discussed in detail. According to VA, about one in five women in the military screen positive for MST, which can cause post-traumatic stress and depression. VA facilities now have MST coordinators to field calls from victims, and the department's central office in Washington has recently hired a women's mental-health program manager.
For its part, the Department of Defense (DoD) has at least one sexual assault response coordinator (SARC) at each post or base. A restricted reporting system that preserves confidentiality for MST victims has also been created, which doesn't automatically trigger an investigation by military authorities. An MST victim first speaks with an SARC, who then explains options for redress or treatment that are available to the individual. DoD also has created Safe Helpline  for MST victims that has an online chat capability and a telephone hotline.
According to DoD, servicemembers suffering from MST in 2010 was about 19,000 — down from 34,000 in 2006. Prosecutions of offenders also went up last year by 50 percent. Commanders and troops receive preventive training on MST and DoD also requires refresher training.
The group noted that women serving in the National Guard can file MST claims if they are assaulted during a two-week training period. "But women cannot file such claims if they're sexually assaulted during a weekend drill," said Verna Jones, director of the Legion's Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division. "This restriction needs to be eliminated. A rape is a rape, regardless of what day it happens. This kind of policy only trivializes the severity of the crime. The Army needs to change this policy asap."
Another key issue covered by the group was unemployment and under-employment among women veterans. The Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University in New York provides training for women veterans and caregivers. It also works with government and the private-sector to create jobs and vocational training opportunities for women veterans. Besides training, the focus group talked about the need to create strategic partnerships with national and global corporations that "can buy into" the need to bring more women veterans into the work force.
Mark Walker, deputy director of the Legion's Economic Division, pointed out that many veterans get hired but do not keep their jobs. "Every company has a culture. If you don't understand that culture, you're not going to do well. You're not going to be promoted and you may, in fact, be terminated."
Retention is a key to solving unemployment among veterans, Walker said, "and when we place women veterans into companies, we need to make sure we keep them there. We need more accommodations for their physical and mental disabilities, and we need more mentoring for them, especially from fellow veterans."
Such mentors can help women veterans adjust to the private-sector workplace and teach them important skills, such as how to negotiate a salary raise — something they never had to think about in the military. Mentors can also help women veterans with their career development, which is often sidetracked by time-consuming responsibilities to family members.
The National Resource Directory  was cited as an excellent online source for women veterans to research opportunities for work, education, training and even assistance for the homeless (sometimes the result of prolonged joblessness). VA has recently launched its VA for Vets  website, which will "translate" a veteran's military occupational specialty into a draft narrative that can be used in a resume. The site also has online mentoring services.