More than 2.2 million veterans are women and more than 700,000 women have served in uniform since our nation went to war after September 11, 2001, but sadly women veterans often feel neglected. In a nation with a long history of promising to take care of those who risk their lives for our way of life, this is unconscionable. This Veterans Day, we need to commit to making sure female veterans finally feel seen, are valued, and get the care we’ve been promised.
When Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America surveyed our members, only 27 percent of women told us that they feel the public treats women veterans with respect. I admit that I, a former Army captain, didn’t even realize the extent of the problem myself—but I do know that too many of us share similar stories of having to prove our veteran status to astonished citizens. This lack of recognition, this subconscious belief that men are the only ones that fight for our country, translates into inadequate support for our unique needs. That means female veterans aren’t getting the same quality of care, services, or support that their male counterparts do. But this blind spot isn’t isolated within the military and veterans community—it’s an American problem.
Until we’re able to change the way America sees its veterans, women will continue to be an afterthought despite how many of us have been to combat. After 16 years of women on the frontlines in our wars, we shouldn’t be struggling to get care for even our most basic needs—yet one-third of VA medical centers still don’t have a gynecologist. Does it seem like the VA has made our care a priority to you?
The VA health care system clearly remains antiquated, but the problems female vets face are far worse than paltry hospital staffing. Women veterans are dying by suicide at 250 percent the rate of civilian women. They are two- to four-times more likely to be homeless than non-veteran women and one out of every four women receiving VA health care says they’ve experienced military sexual trauma. Yet, when was the last time you heard about one of eye-brow raising facts? Women veterans don’t just feel invisible—the headlines highlighting these outrageous statistics seem to be invisible too.
Women are the fastest-growing segment of the veteran population and, as older generations pass away, that trend will persist. We continue to be mired in our nation’s longest war, with more women in the line of fire every day, but you wouldn’t know it by watching the war movies coming out of Hollywood. In order to effectively fix the problems that statistics quantify, we need to first enlighten Americans that we are veterans too. Women need to be featured in movies about the military and veterans, included on Veterans Day posters across the United States, and, perhaps most importantly, need to be given the benefit of the doubt when they say they’ve been to combat—even though they’re no longer wearing the uniform to prove it.
Trust me, this is an epidemic. Despite my two combat deployments, I have a perpetually growing list of occasions when I’ve had to justify my service to female peers and older men alike. Whether it's asserting that I am indeed entitled to park in “Veterans Only” spots at the grocery store, or having to say repeatedly to a group of liberal 30-somethings, “seriously, I was in the Army...and went to Iraq...twice.” Their disbelief that I could be, not only someone who served, but also went to war, is emblematic of how absent women veterans are in the American psyche.
For over a decade, IAVA has worked with the entertainment industry in an effort to raise awareness for the issues that impact Post-9/11 veterans and the community that supports us. Military movies and TV shows unfortunately continue to disproportionately represent female characters as wives and mothers, instead of soldiers or veterans, reinforcing biases about what a servicemember looks like. Perhaps that’s why female patients are still arriving at their VA care center only to have their husband asked if he needs to be checked in for his appointment.
That’s why it's important that first-of-its-kind movies like Blood Stripe, which explores a female Marine’s transition back into civilian life after war, out now, continue to be created. Critically-acclaimed movies like Hurt Locker and American Sniper can’t be the only way pop culture explores the experiences of those serving in our most recent wars. And it's no longer necessary to rely on pure fiction, like in Courage Under Fire, to tell stories of women’s valor, because we have real life G.I. Jane’s these days—both on the battlefield and getting overlooked in all corners of America after they’ve hung their fatigues up for good.
Women risk their lives on the front lines of our wars, but as veterans, our contributions are being missed not just by everyday Americans and the entertainment industry, but by the very agency that’s supposed to support them. In fact, despite countless requests to change it, the VA’s motto remains: "To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and his widow and his orphan."
I look forward to the day that I’m no longer a novelty. That’s why I’m so proud continue my service at an organization willing to prioritize changing the way America views and treats all our veterans. IAVA launched our “She Who Borne the Battle” campaign earlier this year in an effort to finally get women veterans the recognition and support they deserve—including demanding a change to the VA’s outdated, sexist motto.
We served, too, but we need your help to ensure America knows it. This Veterans Day, pledge to join IAVA and stand up for she who borne the battle too.
Allison Jaslow is the Executive Director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the leading nonprofit, nonpartisan organization representing post-9/11 veterans and their families. She is a former Army captain who served two combat deployments in Iraq, from 2004-2005 and 2007-2008.