The economy and national security have been two of the most significant issues facing the United States in recent weeks, and the intersection of those issues -- veteran employment -- should be an important component in media coverage of the economic recovery. But unlike much of America and their male counterparts, female veterans are suffering from a deteriorating employment situation -- and the media are ignoring it.
Given how negatively right-wing media figures have reacted to the mere discussion of women's rights -- see Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and Bill O'Reilly's steady attacks on Georgetown law graduate Sandra Fluke -- it's no surprise that the issue of female veterans' unemployment has taken a back seat in the media.
Finding employment after my own service in the Air Force was no small feat. Like many veterans, I faced psychological challenges transitioning from serving in the military to civilian life. I certainly had no idea that the years of struggles I faced finding employment resonated with tens of thousands of women across the country.
While overall veteran employment improves, nearly one in five women who served during the Afghanistan or Iraq wars are without adequate employment. NBC's Bill Briggs illustrates the overall situation:
As the U.S. troop drawdown continues in Afghanistan, the unemployment rate for post-9/11 female vets surged to 19.9 percent in September, compared to 14.7 percent a year earlier and 12.1 percent in August.
Multiple factors may be contributing to hardship for women veterans. Perhaps the most obvious is that more women than ever are enlisted, so more female vets are returning to civilian life. Fifteen percent of homecoming U.S. troops are women.
But even with the increasing number of women serving in the military, women veterans aren't perceived the same way as men returning from war. John E. Pickens of VeteransPlus, a nonprofit that provides veterans with financial counseling, described this unique challenge:
"Typically, folks look at male veterans returning as warriors who we need to honor, and say we need to do what we can for these warriors. Women, unfortunately, don't carry home that same mantel as a warrior. But they certainly have served beside the men and, in many cases, have done a lot of things that put themselves as risk."
Given the value female veterans can bring to America's workforce, it is critical that the media focus attention on their unemployment crisis and explore possible explanations for the disparity. This could prompt broad policy debates on topics like health care, homelessness, and sexual assault.
Public Sector Vs. Private Sector
Female veterans have historically gravitated to jobs in education and the public sector. As these professions suffer due to severe and avoidable cutbacks in government, women are disproportionately affected. Ilyse Hogue noted that women are recovering from the recession more slowly, "largely due to the loss of public sector jobs." Hogue continued:
The private sector has added 3.5 million jobs since the recovery started, but only 28.8 percent of those have gone to women, and they are likely to be paid seventy-seven cents per the dollar for their male counterparts.
Women veterans could potentially benefit from programs like veteran preference for government jobs, but the public sector's drastic job losses in the last three years, as well as possible sequestration, contribute to the difficulty for women to secure private sector jobs. Instead, recent employment initiatives, such as job training programs for veterans and tax incentives for private employers who hire veterans, overwhelmingly favor private sector work.
By ignoring the unemployment crisis faced by female veterans, the media miss an opportunity to discuss the unique challenges veteran mothers face in transitioning into the workplace. In 2009, an estimated 30,000 single mothers had deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. When these same mothers leave the service and return home, they often want to devote time to their children in a way that wasn't possible while they were deployed. But few jobs offer the flexibility and benefits to allow a mother to work part time. In contrast, if a veteran mother wants to return to civilian work full time, she often doesn't have access to the same childcare resources that were available while she served. This is a significant challenge for mothers returning to their children after separation and working to re-establish a stable home life for their family.
With an unprecedented number of women serving, VA health care facilities have seen a steady rise in required care for female patients. In fact, women using VA services doubled from 160,000 in 2000 to over 337,000 in 2011. To deal with some of the unique health care issues women veterans face, the VA created a task force to review gender gaps in health care for veterans.
As the VA task force noted, women vets are more likely than male vets to have service-related disabilities. They also face unequal VA care: "fewer women Veterans received colorectal cancer screening, depression screening, and immunizations (pneumococcal and influenza) compared to male Veterans. Pharmacy data indicate that women in VA are more likely to be prescribed inappropriate drugs than men." Without proper and continued access to crucial medical attention, women coming home from service experience a significant disadvantage in the job market.
In 2009, an estimated 13,100 female veterans were homeless, which directly affects their ability to find employment. Female veterans are four times more likely to be homeless compared to both their female civilian and male veteran counterparts.
The shortage of safe living environments for homeless female vets only perpetuates the cycle of being homeless and unemployed. And there are even fewer facilities available for homeless women who have children. The women's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor reports that "mixed-gender living arrangements and therapy groups can present risks for sexual harassment and assault."
The Department of Defense estimates that one in four women who serve in the military are raped or assaulted. Of these incidents, only 10 percent are actually reported. Internalized pain of military sexual trauma can lead to negative mental health effects, which often make it more difficult for ex-military women to operate with a sense of normalcy during the work day. This alone can make a career path very unstable for a female veteran, particularly if she doesn't have a network of support through the VA system.
For women who do report sexual trauma, their exit from the military can result in little or no transition assistance. In an interview with NPR, BriGette McCoy -- who served in the U.S. Army from 1987 to 1991 -- recounted her experience transitioning:
"What I realize about transitioning now, looking back, is no one prepares you for it. Basically you are put on a plane, you're sent to a station. You give up all of your military gear and check out, and with the military sexual trauma and me being escorted out of the military very quickly because of reporting it, I didn't have a chance to transition. I didn't have a chance to prepare to get out. I didn't have a chance to look for jobs or even let my family know that I was going to get out."
Additionally, many of these discharges have been a direct result of women being diagnosed with personality disorders for reporting sexual assault. Women were considered unfit to serve and therefore received a psychiatric discharge instead of an honorable one. And since personality disorders are considered pre-existing conditions, women discharged under this condition were exempt from VA benefits. They also lost education benefits like the G.I. Bill. All of this, on top of the tragic emotional trauma of the assault, contributed to employment instability.
Where's The Media?
During the October 16 presidential town hall debate, right-wing media attacked a woman for asking about pay inequality between men and women. In response, Fox News even found opportunity to push more myths about the gender wage gap. In that context, it's no wonder media outlets have glossed over the glaring unemployment reality for female vets. Only until there is free, civilized discourse about the setbacks women face in the working world, can we truly start to deal with unemployment challenges for women who have served our country.
Ultimately, it is the press' responsibility to provide adequate coverage of female veterans' unemployment -- and the accompanying issues of health care, homelessness, and sexual trauma. Until then, Americans will remain blind to a problem that resides in the spirit of tens of thousands of women who have honorably served their country at home and abroad.