Through a New Lens

Courtesy of Jaime Zapata, U.S. Labor Department
Courtesy of Jaime Zapata, U.S. Labor Department
The idea of women serving in the military is no longer novel or unusual. In fact, women are enlisting more than ever today. As a nation, we’ve made great progress in this regard. Where we’ve fallen short, however, is in meeting the challenges service women face when they come home. Sadly, more and more of them are coming home to homelessness.

Women now comprise 20 percent of new military recruits, 14 percent of the current military and eight percent of our veteran population . . . that last number is expected to grow to more than 15 percent in the next 20 years. Over the last decade, however, the number of homeless women veterans has nearly doubled.

Despite these growing numbers, we’re still “treating” women vets the same way we treat the men. But the fact is the issues women veterans face are different – not better or worse, just different. We need to take that into consideration. We’ve got to stop viewing women veterans through the lens of men.

Yes, women deal with many of the same issues as their male counterparts: post traumatic stress disorder, sleeplessness, and battle injuries. But they face different challenges, too. A study by the Department of Veterans Affairs found that as many as one-in-three women report they were raped or sexually assaulted while serving.

We need to change the culture of treatment for women veterans. So we’ve done something unique at the Department of Labor to help bring about that change. We had in-depth conversations with them. We learned about their fears, their struggles, and the challenges they face everyday in readjusting to civilian life. We took the voices of these women, and we turned them into an action guide for service providers to be able to meet their needs in a more efficient, effective, and compassionate way.

The guide calls for collaboration from both the federal government and service providers, and is a toolkit for reintegrating our most vulnerable female veterans back into civilian life and the workplace.  It gives service providers ranging from social workers, to faith-base groups, to our one-stop career centers self-assessment tools, and concrete trauma-informed practices that they can use to tailor their treatments to the unique needs of women veterans. The guide encourages service providers to do things as simple as asking homeless women about previous military service – since women are less likely than men to self-identify as veterans.

The influx of women veterans is a new phenomenon, so even the best service providers may not know how to effectively address their issues. Mainly because many of them have never had to, or because their professional training is largely tailored to treat men.

That’s why the release of this guide is so important. It’s about more than just raising awareness and providing information, it’s about looking at this issue through a proper lens to ensure that all veterans get the treatment they need and have rightfully earned.

Hilda Solis is the U.S. Secretary of Labor

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