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From Lincoln To Obama: Lincoln’s promise to care for veterans faces new tests in the 21st century

Wed, May 29, 2013

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Abraham Lincoln set the benchmark for government’s role regarding returning Civil War soldiers in his second inaugural address: “To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.”

President Obama and U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, (a former NATO commander), have made a similar commitment to end veteran homelessness by 2015.

According to a February report from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, the number of veterans experiencing homelessness on a single night decreased 18 percent (from 76,329 to 62,619) between 2010 and 2012. One reason is the provision of 48,000 HUD-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) vouchers since 2008. Another is Supportive Services for Veterans Families (SSVF), homeless prevention aid similar to Chicago’s Emergency Fund.

The VA has put $300 million into SSVF grants to nonprofits for services such as outreach, case management and assistance in obtaining VA and other benefits, as well as help with rent, utilities or moving expenses that can help veterans stay housed, said Gary Shaheen, director of employment policy at the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) based at Syracuse University. Shaheen spoke at the IVMF’s National Summit on Women Veteran Homelessness May 3-5 in Chicago, which drew leaders from academia, public policy, mental health, as well as homeless service providers. Their roundtable conversations will be gathered into a white paper that will be delivered to the White House.

“We know that women veterans are four times more likely to become homeless as compared to non-veteran women, and that women veterans who are homeless were younger, less likely to be employed and more likely to have a mental illness,” Shaheen wrote in the welcome to the summit. “Estimates indicate that 53 percent of homeless women veterans have experienced military sexual trauma [MST], which can be a factor in becoming homeless.”

Rachel Natelson, a lawyer with the Service Womens’ Action Network (SWAN) told the summit that women involved in MST cases sometimes wind up charged with collateral misconduct, such as underage drinking or possession of a substance, which can affect their ability to access veterans’ benefits.

“There’s an added layer of betrayal of having placed one’s faith in military justice and found it didn’t deliver,” particularly if the military investigators sided with the aggressor, she said. And if a service member needed an abortion, the government would only pay if her life were at stake, Natelson said.

Although her clients are not yet ready to access employment, translating military skills to civilian jobs is particularly challenging for women, Natelson added. The reason is that although policy banned women from combat, “there was a disconnect between the law and what actually happened on the ground.”

As an example, Natelson referred to the documentary movie, Lioness, about female support soldier-mechanics who wound up fighting alongside Marines during some of the bloodiest counterinsurgency battles of the Iraq War. As a result, they faced heightened risk of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD).

Yet because their military job classifications as mechanics, logistics personnel or heavy equipment operators seemingly excluded combat, they were unable to process their disability claims with the Veterans Administration.

According to the film’s website, screening of the movie on Capitol Hill “activated a conversation between entities that had not worked together in this way on an issue of mutual concern before.” Ultimately, the film served as a catalyst for the repeal of the Defense Department’s exclusion on women in combat this January. The new policy more accurately reflects today’s reality: that there are no longer any lines in or out of the battlefield, IVMF officials said.

Yet even if the women attain VA disability benefits, they resist going to the medical centers. Roundtable participants at the national summit said the perception is the VA hospitals are male-dominated. Men there often are disrespectful and they assume the women are spouses, not former military service personnel. One woman said she even ran into the man who had repeatedly made suggestive faces at her (a form of MST) in the VA medical center. It jarred her because she had felt that combat made them like protective brother and sister.

Other people talked about women’s tendency not to self-identify as hurting because of their survivorship instincts. A UCLA study available on a flash drive to summit participants said that some women enter the military to escape abusive situations. Their pattern of non-reporting continues and they wind up being re-victimized and stigmatized, at a cost to their self-esteem.

The UCLA recommendations were for intake interviews to identify female veterans’ risk and boost their resiliency, for review of procedures on MST so that women are not penalized for reporting and for social and psychological services that address their relationship issues as well as substance abuse and other mental health issues.

Another study, from Johns Hopkins in 2010, said that women veterans were four times more likely than non-veteran women to become homeless. Characteristics associated with homelessness included MST, unemployment, disability, having worse overall health and having an anxiety disorder or PTSD. VA health care could help with their unmet needs but the study acknowledged that women feel barriers of the VA.

The Johns Hopkins study recommended more gender-specific housing and trauma-informed treatment programs. More structural interventions – expanded college education availability, job training and transitional housing – were recommended for women with additional risk factors for homelessness.

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Summit members agreed at their roundtables that the VA needed to become more receptive to women: “be more client-centered and not treat them as square pegs.” They also called for trauma-informed services that did not recreate the women’s initial experience.

On the other hand, some summit members disagreed with the portrayal of women veterans as “a bunch of birds with broken wings.” They asked, “Where was the positive talk about their impact on society, the rank they had achieved, all reasons for their children to look up to them?”

These participants argued that the transition into the isolation of civilian life is what shook the women. The women vets were overwhelmed by pamphlets and brochures and did better in a peer environment.

Jas Boothe was among those with this view. Boothe is a former Chicagoan and the founder of Virginia-based Final Salute, which has provided transitional housing for 16 women and eight children as well as emergency financial assistance for 28 women veterans and 20 children since its founding in 2010. Final Salute provides an individualized two-year plan that allows women to support each other while also asking them what they can do to support their own children’s day care, for example.

Boothe said via email that she joined the military to create a tradition of service for her family.

“I already had a degree, so I didn’t join for the college money,” Boothe said.

“All women do not join the military to ‘escape’ something or start a new life. It’s a career choice.

“The issue isn’t that we can’t transition and use the skills learned,” Boothe continued. “The issue is that you just left a unit and now have to learn to function as an individual. We are not wild animals and we would really appreciate not being perceived that way.”

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Reintegration for veterans happens in a community, not in a bureaucracy, said William “Bill” Elmore, owner and principal of M2BA, LLC a St. Louis provider of veteran and service member economic assimilation programs. “They rejoin a community, not a bureaucracy. We force them into a bureaucracy and it simply doesn’t work.”

Integrating career planning with life planning at the very start of military service would enhance successful transitions to the civilian world, said one participant. A weeklong class near the end of enlistment with follow up afterward was yet another suggestion.

Chaplain Oluwatoyin Hines is a family life chaplain with the Illinois Army National Guard. Hines said later by telephone that as chaplain she has a dual role: to provide for free exercise of religion and also to provide specific counseling related to marriage and family. She started 19 years ago as an enlisted finance specialist, deployed to Kosovo in 2008 and 2009 and was inactive while finishing her master’s in religious studies.

Through mentoring in the military, Hines said she has seen many women go from diamonds in the rough to leaders. “They come in with a unique skillset and depending on the leadership you’re under, you are able to cultivate those skills – specifically leadership skills – from what you are taught in basic training. Sometimes it’s camaraderie, sometimes it’s competitive: those skills are transferrable to other fields outside the military.”

What the summit did for her, Hines said, “is open up the spectrum. In order to prevent homelessness, we can work at immediate needs, where the service member is now to prevent larger issues later. It resonated because it’s not just about the service member but the family as well: how to assure they have the resources they need.”

Employer Support of Guard and Reserve (ESGR) is one National Guard program that can assist individuals in navigating programs and connecting to services, Hines said. “From my experience there’s been a balance [of women and men] utilizing the resources we have in terms of prevention, intervention and postvention.”

By Suzanne Hanney,
StreetWise Editor-In-chief

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