This Veterans Day, Americans will celebrate the sacrifice and heroism of those who served in uniform from World War I to the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of us will thank our brothers, fathers, uncles, and perhaps even grandfathers for their patriotism and military service. Far fewer Americans will extend their arms to salute the many women who have bravely defended our nation’s freedom.
Unfortunately, women veterans are largely invisible in our nation’s narrative. Images of Vietnam veterans and heroic Iraqi combat veterans pervade our national imagery and the bravery of World War II veterans is celebrated in docudramas, shaping our cultural understanding of who is and is not a veteran. When Americans think of veterans, they rarely think of women.
Women comprise 15 percent of Active Duty U.S. troops and nearly 19 percent of Reserve forces, and the number of women entering the military is steadily increasing. By 2020, women are projected to make up more than 10 percent of the veteran population. The growing presence of women in the military and the veteran population begs the question: Why are women veterans invisible to the American people?
In part, this may be because of Department of Defense (DoD) policies and popular ideas of how one becomes a veteran. Many Americans believe that a service member becomes a veteran only after serving in a foreign war and experiencing combat. DoD policies have historically banned women from serving in any unit whose primary mission was direct ground combat. Until recently, women were prohibited from serving in infantry units. Although they cannot serve in special operation forces such as the Army Rangers, a rapidly deploying infantry combat unit, military policies are slowly changing. In August, the first women passed the grueling 62-day Army Ranger course and now wear the prestigious Army Ranger Tab. This tab symbolizes elite soldiering and embodies fortitude and perseverance.
Despite these advances, our national narrative has yet to change. The media is notorious for highlighting the perceived disadvantages of women in war zones. Common arguments for their exclusion in direct ground combat center on women’s weakness (emotional or physical), interference with unit cohesion and inappropriate fraternization with men. Some Americans are also convinced that servicewomen’s fertility can present problems on the battlefield. This sentiment reminds me of a scene in the movie Anchorman, a satire of 1970s sexism, when one of the main characters says of women, “I read somewhere that their periods attract bears.” Such convictions suggest that a woman’s fertility places others at risk for imminent danger.
Such arguments produce false images of women as weak, seductive and intimately connected to the biological processes of the body (menstruation and reproduction), legitimizing why they should be banned from war and combat roles.
But the tides are changing. As I learned in a DoD-funded study led by Anne Sadler at the Iowa City VA, a great deal of women deployed to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They served their country alongside their brothers-in-arms and experienced the realities of war.
The nature of irregular warfare, including guerilla fighting, no front lines and an unmarked enemy has blurred the boundaries between combat and non-combat roles, putting women in the line of fire. The mere fact that women are deployed to theaters of war puts them at risk for combat-related traumatic experiences. A female veteran who participated in a VA-funded study shared with me a near-death experience during her time in Iraq: during a patrol a mortar landed nearby. It did not go off, but she believed the shrapnel from the explosion would have killed her. The event and the lingering images of death stuck with her.
Americans rarely hear of women’s war-time experiences and combat-related trauma exposures. When military women are in the spotlight, the focus tends to be on the military sexual trauma (MST) they experienced and the ensuing emotional and psychological suffering.
Women have confided in me, sharing their sexual trauma histories. Without a doubt, their experiences need to be addressed. Americans need to understand the devastating effects such experiences have on the overall health, well-being and quality of life of military women.
But, servicewomen do not want to be defined by these experiences. They want to be seen as military persons and do not want to be differentiated from their brothers-in-arms. By focusing on servicewomen’s victimhood, we overlook their heroism, their leadership, and their commitment to defend our freedom.
We also overlook their right to be a veteran.
Too many servicewomen do not identify as veterans. This has far-reaching and long-term consequences because they do not know they are entitled to education, healthcare, housing and employment benefits. When I asked a woman veteran who suffered from Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and substance use why she waited so long to access VA healthcare services, she replied “I didn’t know I was a veteran.” This woman is not unique. Many women do not feel welcome or entitled to VA services because of beliefs that only wounded or retired servicemen access VA healthcare.
The tides are changing and so too should our national narrative. This Veterans Day let’s join together to honor women’s military service and their valor in defending our nation.
Ann Marie Cheney is assistant professor in the University of California, Riverside School of Medicine and affiliate of the Greater Los Angeles Veterans Healthcare System.