Surging homelessness and high rates of unemployment are plaguing women leaving military service, growing problems that experts testified to during a congressional hearing Tuesday where they argued that lawmakers need to take immediate action.
The hearing, held by a House Veterans' Affairs subcommittee, was focused on what has created disproportionate issues for women as they transition out of military service compared to their male colleagues.
Women are the fastest-growing population of veterans, yet are also the fastest-growing segment of homeless veterans and have a higher unemployment rate, lower median income and are more likely to live below the poverty line than male veterans, according to data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Census Bureau.
One of the primary drivers of that disparity is the way the military branches have handled sexual trauma, testified Lory Manning, director of government relations for the Service Women's Action Network. Servicewomen who experience sexual trauma often face retaliation from their superiors and may leave the service early, she said. Some receive other-than-honorable discharges, forcing them to forgo some educational, financial and employment benefits.
"Sometimes, a person that has been sexually assaulted in the military wants out, now," Manning said in an interview. "They don't understand they're signing away their veterans' benefits."
In August, the Department of Veterans Affairs Inspector General released reports revealing that 57% of denied claims for military sexual trauma survivors in the last quarter of 2019 were not processed correctly.
Manning added that many service members are not aware that they can apply directly to the Veterans Benefit Administration to upgrade their benefits. She urged Congress to work with the VA to clarify vague language and set up a standardized process so women can access the benefits.
Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., who is chair of the Veterans' Affairs health subcommittee, pointed to the Build Back Better Act, legislation being pushed by the Biden administration that would greatly expand social safety net programs, as having provisions for universal preschool and child care benefits that would help veterans and military families. She acknowledged that more needs to be done to address the unique needs of servicewomen.
"You've made very specific suggestions that I'm taking to heart," Brownley told advocates during the Economic Opportunities Subcommittee hearing.
Advocates said the federal Transition Assistance Program, known as TAP, is not doing enough to help service members take advantage of the assistance available when they return to civilian life.
"It's a process that starts quickly and ends quickly -- you're in and you're out," Ginger Miller, president and CEO of Women Veterans Interactive, said in an interview after she testified. "TAP is not a support service; it is an educational tool that leads you to support services."
Though the VA recently created a Women's Health Transition Training program to provide guidance on gender-specific health care, the course is optional, self-guided and entirely virtual, according to Jodie Grenier, CEO of the nonprofit Foundation for Women Warriors. She said it is not widely known among servicewomen.
-- Ali McCadden is a reporter for the Medill News Service.