Female veterans will be honored in ceremonies on Saturday, but many face gender-unique obstacles when they return to the civilian work force. Two programs help women make the transition and secure their benefits.

Deborah Frett

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Growing up, former Sgt. Stacy Vasquez never prepared to find a job in the civilian world.

Vasquez joined the military at 17, immediately after she graduated from high school in 1991, and served nearly 12 years as a paralegal and a recruiter in the Army.

But in 2003, Vasquez was spotted kissing a woman at a club in Dallas. Soon after, she found herself out of a job–and out of the military–after an investigation into her sexual orientation led officials to ban her from service under the military’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy toward gays and lesbians.

She received an honorable discharge, but was barred from the only workplace she had ever known and was forced to quickly find her way in the civilian work force.

"I had my first and only job for 12 years," she said in October, when she spoke about her experience at a lunch celebrating the first anniversary of a program to help female veterans succeed in the civilian work force. Called Women Joining Forces–Closing Ranks, Opening Doors, the program is a project of Business and Professional Women USA, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. "It was a scary time in my life when I transitioned out of the Army."

As military women return from Iraq, Afghanistan and other military posts around the globe, some are finding the adjustment to the civilian working world surprisingly tough. Dressing for work, preparing a resume, handling an interview, negotiating a salary, finding a mentor and networking can all seem strange and difficult.

"There were no job interviews prior to my discharge to teach me what I would have to do when I left the service," Vasquez said. "It was very eye opening. When they said, ‘Tell us a little bit about yourself,’ that isn’t one of the same questions you get in the Army."

Program Launched in October

To address those problems, Business and Professional Women USA launched Women Joining Forces in October 2005 to help ex-military women identify employment opportunities and target companies that provide attractive benefits.

In the first year of the program, Women Joining Forces officials set a goal of giving 1,500 female veterans free access to peer mentoring programs, networking events, professional development training, educational scholarships and an online site featuring job openings tailored for female veterans. The program costs $300,000 a year, and they hope to expand it.

Program officials are also conducting a survey to examine issues of particular concern to female veterans. Conclusions will be released in the spring.

One major way to help female veterans is to make sure they take advantage of federal benefits they are entitled to as veterans, said Irene Trowell-Harris, director of the Department of Veterans Affairs Center for Women Veterans in Washington, D.C.

"Women veterans are less likely to self-identify as veterans and thus connect with needed services," Trowell-Harris said at the launch of the Women Joining Forces program.

Many women don’t consider themselves veterans because they did not serve in combat positions and may also fear stigmatization if they left children or families behind to fight a war, explained Ayoka Blandford, spokesperson for Business and Professional Women.

Helping female veterans receive their full benefits has become a primary mission of the Center for Women Veterans. The center also educates women about changes at the Department of Veterans Affairs that may affect services, monitors government transition programs to ensure they include information for women, lobbies the government to include gender issues in research projects and reaches out to female veterans to help them access benefits and health care services.

Transitions to Civilian Life

Women aren’t the only ones who have difficulty transitioning into the civilian world, said Betty Moseley Brown, associate director of the Center for Women Veterans, in an interview. "I think that a lot of the obstacles or perceived obstacles aren’t necessarily geared toward a gender anymore," she said.

Bill Scott, director of marketing for Bradley-Morris, Inc., the country’s largest placement firm for military veterans located in Kennesaw, Ga., said women benefit from a key advantage: their ability to satisfy corporate diversity requirements. Consequently, female veterans actually have an easier time entering the civilian work force than many men, he said.

"From our point of view, in terms of what the employers tell us, transitioning women are at the top of their list," Scott said.

But while returning servicewomen may have some advantages, some aspects of civilian transition can be particularly hard, said Deborah Frett, chief executive officer of Business and Professional Woman USA.

Currently, women represent about 15 percent of the active duty military, 16 percent of the reserves and about 20 percent of new recruits, Trowell-Harris said. About 10 percent of the U.S. force serving in Iraq and Afghanistan are women.

While the overall population of veterans is in decline, the number of female veterans–about 7 percent of the total veteran population–is growing. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of female veterans jumped 33 percent, from 1.2 million to 1.7 million.

Frett noted that female veterans are more likely to be underemployed than male veterans and are almost four times as likely to become homeless than non-veteran women.

There are many reasons that explain those statistics, Frett said, citing low self-esteem and feelings of isolation and uncertainty upon exiting the military.

Post-Discharge Stresses

Female veterans are more likely to experience anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder, said Blandford. She also cited a March 2006 study by the Department of Defense that showed that 24 percent of female soldiers expressed concerns about their mental health, compared to 19 percent of male soldiers.

Many female veterans must also deal with the physical, psychological and emotional repercussions of sexual assault. Between 15 and 23 percent of female veterans reported experiencing some form of sexual trauma while on active duty, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Upon returning home, women also shoulder a disproportionate burden of domestic responsibilities, Blandford said. When male veterans come home, they can often depend on help from a wife or mother. But when women come home, in addition to getting a new job, they are often expected to handle child care and work around the house, she said.

On top of that, female veterans must negotiate the same societal challenges faced by civilian women in the work force, such as gender discrimination, a lack of equal pay for equal work and difficulty balancing work and home lives.

"Women have no clue of all of the other things that are out there for them," said Antoinette Scott, a veteran, mother of four and the first woman in the District of Columbia to receive the Purple Heart. She won the medal after transporting male soldiers to safety after the truck she was driving was struck by an improvised explosive device. During the incident, shrapnel hit her face, breaking her jaw and a main blood vessel to her brain.

Scott, one of the first members of Women Joining Forces, said she hopes to change that by educating her fellow female veterans about their benefits.

"Women, we struggle in a way that we don’t realize we’re struggling," Scott said. "We fight to keep our jobs, we fight to keep our promotions, we fight to get promotions, and then when we retire, we have to fight to get our benefits."

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.

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For More Information:

Women Joining Forces–Closing Ranks, Opening Doors:

The Department of Veterans Affairs Center for Women Veterans:

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