By Katy Beh Neas Female veterans shoulder a double dilemma in our society. They face all the same problems as their male counterparts when re-entering civilian life, including getting and keeping a job, accessing health care and affordable housing. But many do not identify themselves as veterans and as such don’t access available veteran supports and services. Those that do and seek assistance often find veteran systems and programs ill-equipped to address their needs.
This is important because women are one of the fastest-growing groups within the veteran population, according to the Veterans Health Administration. In fact, they will soon reach one-fifth of the total veteran cohort. While many female veterans find success following their military service, far too many live in poverty, are unemployed or are homeless.
Military service-connected experiences and transition challenges pose health and family threats to many female veterans. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, female veterans are more likely to be at risk for depression than their male counterparts, 11 percent more likely to be divorced than civilian women and nearly twice as likely to suffer from an eating disorder than male veterans. The numbers jump significantly for female veterans under 35 years old.
The growing number of female veterans has placed new demands on an already strained VA system, leaving policymakers, veteran groups and others to seek additional approaches to meet the needs of female veterans, including the 200,000 women expected to leave the military over the next four to five years.
So what works best in helping veterans, particularly females, excel during their transition?
Female veterans live in communities in all 50 states, so it stands to reason that the way a community welcomes, connects with and responds to service members leaving the military can make the difference between a transition success story and one of struggle and crisis.
Easter Seals, a national non-profit organization that has served veterans since World War II, has released a new report, “Call to Action: Support Community Efforts to Improve the Transition to Civilian Life for Women Veterans.” It posits that gender-specific programs put in place by Congress and the VA are important foundation steps, but more can and must be done, especially in expanding reintegration services at the community level.
Recent studies have identified the expansion of public-private partnerships as being critical to increasing access to community-based reintegration supports for female and male veterans. Easter Seals has worked with key public and private partners to help deploy a reintegration model that focuses on overall veteran wellness by leveraging available community services and emphasizing crisis prevention, before situations require crisis intervention. The organization provides a recommended community best practice model with five core components:
· Veteran-centered approach to focus on the unique and evolving needs of each female veteran;
· Care coordination to holistically address reintegration through a coordinated team approach;
· Community connection to link female veterans to other key federal and local supports within their communities;
· Emergency financial assistance to meet unexpected, temporary financial barriers to successful reintegration; and,
· Ongoing preventative and follow along supports to recognize that reintegration challenges can surface throughout a female veteran’s lifetime.
The gap in reintegration services for female veterans exists not because we do not have a solution. It exists in part community-based solutions are not readily available in all parts of the country.
Congress has taken steps to close the gap in reintegration services that exist for female veterans, including through community care coordination programs that leverage existing community supports. However, many female veterans still struggle to access reintegration services at the community level, which is jeopardizing their transition to civilian life.
To enable our female veterans to succeed where they live, Congress must authorize and fund federal care coordination programs for female veterans. This goes beyond support of existing federal programs that utilize the community care coordination model and must add new programs for female veterans via community grants. Further, within the current federal programs, funds must be targeted to address the unique reintegration challenges female veterans face.
It’s time for Congress to answer this call to action. Two million female veterans are depending on you.
Katy Beh Neas is the executive vice president of Public Affairs for Easter Seals.