Struggling to serve women vets

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 17, 2010 - 4:15 PM

Nearly 250,000 female soldiers have served in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade. More and more of them are coming home. But the military is often struggling to serve their needs.

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Anne Baumtrog is a staff sergeant with the Minnesota National Guard who just returned from a tour in Iraq.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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Anne Baumtrog remembers the slight well.

She and her husband, Paul, were at a support program in the Twin Cities for returning soldiers, checking out a Veterans of Foreign Wars table. Anne, a staff sergeant in the Minnesota National Guard who had just come back from the first of two tours in Iraq, was in uniform. Her husband was wearing jeans and a T-shirt.

But the VFW officials focused on him, explaining the benefits the group could provide, even offering to mail him more information.

For Anne, who received a combat medic badge in Iraq, the disrespect was jarring. "I can expect that from the average citizen,'' she said. "But to have that kind of disrespect from fellow veterans, it was just frustrating and hurtful."

To this day, the VFW offers come mailed to Paul, not Anne.

Her experience is common. Women across Minnesota who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan tell similar stories: Home loan paperwork from the Department of Veterans Affairs made out in the names of their husbands. VA hospital care where women are such an afterthought that examination rooms face out toward crowded hallways. Insufficient job-training programs. Family-outreach programs blind to the idea that some of the spouses left struggling at home are husbands, not wives.

Nearly 250,000 female soldiers have served in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade. More and more of them are coming home. But the military is often struggling to serve their needs.

In Minnesota, home to the more than 20,000 female vets, women who were once in or near the thick of the fight say they feel that the military and the civilian worlds overlook or discount their service. Some feel so marginalized they are reluctant even to seek help for emotional and other problems that arise once they're back home.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, in a speech earlier this year, acknowledged the problem.

"Time is not on our side. We are late," he said.

Congress also has taken the small step of authorizing a comprehensive study of the VA's treatment of women veterans. And last year, the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs convened its first military women's summit to explore ways to reach out to women vets and their families.

The numbers are beginning to reveal the extent of the problem. Women make up roughly 5 percent of the approximately 107,000 veterans nationwide who are homeless each night. "Mistreatment by the VA is enough reason for many traumatized women veterans to fall through the cracks and end up victims of alcohol abuse, unemployment, homelessness and suicide," Anuradha Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women's Action Network and a former Marine captain, testified at a congressional hearing last year.

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"Males are afraid to put a female in a position of authority because they assume a male would do a better job ... It's a man's military, and that's what we get for stepping into it."

23-year-old woman who served in Afghanistan with the Minnesota National Guard. Like a number of others, she spoke of her service on the condition of anonymity.

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Becky Danaher has completed the outward transition to civilian life --from U.S. staff sergeant operating a command center in Iraq to buyer at Target.

She was part of missions that cost soldiers their lives, and her time overseas threatened her marriage. Yet the only outward wound from her service is a front tooth lost during training for Iraq. Danaher doesn't talk much about being in Iraq. It's not that she minds. It's that others don't ask, a fact that she has come to accept.

"It took me a while to understand that people don't know what to say," says Danaher, who left Iraq five years ago. "It's easier not to ask anymore, but it's something that goes on in my mind constantly. To them, it's just like someone spent a year in Europe or some other work experience. They don't think about it being somewhere inside me. But every time a door slams it sounds like a mortar."

She was part of a unit that coordinated convoys of food, equipment and troops. Sometimes the trucks would fall prey to explosive devices and the convoys would call in for medical aid and vehicle recovery. It was Danaher's job to secure vital equipment and figure out how to get people back safe. She went to 20 memorial services for soldiers who didn't make it.

"You don't have to know these soldiers personally, you know who they are. It's like a piece of you is gone," she says.

That stress fully manifested itself only after she got home.

"I went through a two-week period where my mind and body decompressed. I cried nonstop, and I didn't know why. Then I figured out I was just letting go."

She finds herself disconnected from small talk about celebrities and gossip.

"Our time is limited, and I've seen that firsthand," she says. "You don't know, you have to accept the possibility of death.''

She and her husband, Sean, recognized that their marriage had frayed while she was overseas. The outreach offered by military family support groups was no help.

"There were things like scrapbooking. I can tell you I'm not into scrapbooking," Sean said. "And all the e-mails I would get from the family support group the pronouns were the wrong gender."

After Becky's return, Sean intensified a long-distance running regime, going farther and farther. The symbolism wasn't lost on his wife. Known for the bright gleam in her eye before she left, a quiet sadness seemed to surround her once she came home.

They briefly sought counseling, but not through the VA. Methodical in her analysis, Becky says now that for as long as a soldier is deployed and away from home it will probably take that long to readjust.

"It was nice to be outside the military, so there wasn't any military bias," she said.

She describes her time in the military as one chapter in her life. Now closed, it is rarely reopened, especially now as the couple expect their first child in late March. She thinks often of the people who were deployed with her, but she put away her medals and ribbons. The most tangible evidence of her service is the cozy south Minneapolis home she shares with Sean. The home was purchased with a VA loan. The paperwork came made out in Sean's name.

Some of her friends who also served have Iraq war veteran license plates. Not Danaher.

"If we had them, everyone would think that they were my husband's,'' she said.

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"Women were given the worst of everything. I had to walk a half mile to shower or use a flushing toilet."

27-year-old woman who just returned from Afghanistan with the Minnesota National Guard.

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Sgt. Breena Bieber was part of combat missions. Except, officially she wasn't.

How can a soldier simultaneously be part of a combat unit and not part of that unit?

When the soldier is a woman.

Because of the peculiarities of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, female soldiers have been asked to serve as liaisons with women civilians there in numbers never seen in previous conflicts. Several years ago, in fact, the Marines developed all-female units -- dubbed lionesses -- to deal directly with Iraqi women. At the same time, the military maintains -- at least on paper -- its rules against women serving in combat, despite the fact that guerrilla warfare often makes the prohibition meaningless. Pentagon policy prohibits women from being part of branches such as Special Forces, artillery and infantry.

But the cultural demands of today's battles have resulted in women becoming "attached" to combat units without officially being assigned to them.

Bieber found herself in that situation in Iraq. Bieber, who spent seven years in the Minnesota National Guard, was deployed with a medical unit twice to Iraq. During the last half of her final deployment she was a medic for a unit operating gun trucks on convoys, patrols and intelligence-gathering operations. When her group pulled over vehicles, it was Bieber's job to deal with the Iraqi women. She recalls one incident where a woman collapsed while walking in the desert during a pilgrimage in the holy month of Ramadan.

"I ran out with my medic bag. When she woke up, she started crying. She'd never seen Army military people before. I was there to help her, calm her down because she saw a woman's face," she said.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have represented a historic change for women in the military. Women have made up a far larger component of the ranks in these wars than any before them and have been subjected to more combat than ever. Some 721 of them have been wounded and 132 killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than in all U.S. conflicts since World War II.

The Pentagon doesn't track medals by gender, but one study calculates that more than 2,000 women who have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq have been awarded the Bronze Star, another 1,300 have earned the Combat Action Badge and at least two women have been awarded the Silver Star, the military's third-highest honor for bravery in combat.

Bieber is leaving the military after seven years and two deployments to pursue a nursing degree. She harbors no regrets about how she was treated. "There is nothing I would ever change about my military career," she said.

However, had she elected to stay in, her path to promotion would be more difficult than those of males who officially had been on combat operations. Bieber acknowledges that the military has been slow to recognize the realities of what it now asking from its female soldiers.

"They are very old-fashioned," she said. "You can see they are trying to break out of that, but I feel like it's going to take time."

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"Anger issues, sleeping, irritability. I was sexually harassed."

24-year-old woman who served in Afghanistan with the Minnesota National Guard.

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Melissa Passeretti has already served two tours in Iraq and carries nerve damage in her neck and back from wearing body armor ill-fitted to the female form.

But she would go back.

Unable to find work since returning home in January from her last deployment and about to divorce, Passeretti sees another stint in the Army as her best option for paying the bills.

A staff sergeant in the Minnesota National Guard, Passeretti came from a military family. Her father was a career Marine who would stop the car on family trips and make the kids stand at attention with their hands over their hearts when the national anthem played on the radio before baseball games.

Respect for obligation and duty has "been bred into me," Passeretti said. If asked, she'd be ready to be deployed again as early as next year.

"My children have all said, 'Well, if you need to go again it's not so bad because we need things, we want things and we're tired of hearing we don't have the money,'" she said.

Passeretti's story is a familiar one to advocates hoping to improve the re-entry of women veterans into the civilian workforce. State employment programs for vets often see women attend a meeting or two and then never come back. A woman veteran between the ages of 18 to 24 is twice as likely to experience unemployment as a non-veteran woman. And women veterans who have served since 1990 have a 20 percent higher unemployment rate than their male counterparts, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, A program for women vets wrestling with returning home went on with empty chairs in a Woodbury church earlier this year before male vets were allowed in to fill the ranks rather than risk losing grant money.

In Iraq, Passeretti was a truck driver during her first deployment. Her soon-to-be ex-husband, who also is in the Guard, was at home with the kids at the time. He got plenty of offers of support. When the roles were reversed and she was left home while he went overseas, people just assumed she could manage on her own, Passeretti said.

"Most women work, they clean house, they care of the children. I was seen as I should have been fully capable of taking care of myself," she said.

When a drawer broke in her bathroom, a male friend offered to fix it for her. But when he came to pick it up, they exchanged it at her front door. When it was repaired, they exchanged it again at the front door, fearing people would gossip about a man going to and from her house.

Perhaps what frustrates her most is the lack of recognition. At the veterans hospital, other patients assume that she is the wife of a vet or that her injuries could not have come from the battlefield.

"I'm a combat vet. There are women combat vets in this state," she said. "People just automatically assume that you're not because you're a woman. It's frustrating."

Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434

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