Members of the Women Marine Association (WMA) gather for the 50th Biennial Convention and Development Conference, in Denver, Colorado, Sept. 3-8, 2010.
U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Lindsay L. Sayres/Released.
Written By: Jennifer Smith
“To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.”
As for the women who bore the battle, a growing number of them return home to suffer issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), joblessness, and sometimes homelessness, all while struggling to receive care from the VA.
Such is the story behind Service: When Women Come Marching Home, a documentary by Marcia Rock and Patricia Lee Stotter. Marcia Rock is an independent filmmaker and two-time Emmy award winning independent documentary producer while Patricia Lee Stotter is an Emmy award winning composer and writer for television, film, theater, and interactive media.
“The way this got started was sisterhood, just to use an overused term,” Stotter says. “Marcia and I were two women. I had written music for films that Marcia had done about women and all of a sudden, our interests converged and two women started reaching out to other women in all the different ways that women reach out to each other.”
The resulting film explores PTSD, military sexual trauma (MST), and homelessness, but with an emphasis on solutions and support. A multi-platform project, Service focuses on support through social media initiatives, which encourage women veterans to “share information, find friendship and share solutions that have changed their lives.”
“Women are the largest growing demographic in the military, and they’re coming back, and their needs are not being met,” says Stotter. “There are legislators, journalists, filmmakers, and a lot of people getting those stories out. I think they’re finally getting out on a variety of fronts, and people are waking up to it.”
According to a July 2009 testimony before the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs by the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO), the number of women veterans in the United States is projected to increase by 17 percent between 2008 and 2033.
The military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, also known as Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom respectively, have illuminated the plight of this growing number of veterans. Twenty percent of women veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom have been diagnosed with PTSD according to 2009 GAO testimony, which also cites a VA report from 2008 that found 21 percent of women screened for military sexual trauma (MST) “screened positive for having experienced MST.” According to another GAO report from December 2011, the number of women veterans identified as homeless (according to limited VA data) has more than doubled—from 1,380 in fiscal year 2006 to 3,328 in fiscal year 2010.
Finally, a January 2011 article in Army Times cites a Veterans’ Administration Office of Inspector General’s report concluding that women are missing out on post-war benefits. According to the report, female military members returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are more likely to be diagnosed with mental health conditions than their male counterparts, but men are more likely then women to get benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder. The study ultimately found that the Benefits Administration denies payment for PTSD claims at a higher rate for women than for men. On the other hand, the Benefits Administration denies a higher rate of male veterans’ claims for mental health conditions other than PTSD.
“Although we don’t address this in the film, it’s addressed in our Facebook groups,” Stotter says. “Many women are diagnosed in a fashion that can result in anything from their being kicked out of the military and losing their career and benefits to losing custody of their children … but every woman in our project has found solutions. Not complete solutions, but they’re on their way.”
While documentaries such as Service: When Women Come Marching Home and The Invisible War serve as examples of filmmakers exploring the personal stories behind these statistics, advocacy groups and legislators too are addressing these numbers.
The Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) advocates for military service women and provides a number of educational resources for the public, including the latest Department of Defense report, Fiscal Year 2009 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military.
SWAN also partners with organizations and law firms to do battle in court. Currently, they are involved in Cardona v. Shinseki, a suit against the Secretary of Veterans Affairs by a former sailor whose claim for spousal benefits was denied despite being legally married to her wife.
In terms of legislation, a number of representatives are taking the recommendations set forth by the 2009 GAO report to heart and proposing measures that would improve health care for women veterans.
For example, Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) proposed S. 1214, the Military Access to Reproductive Care and Health for Military Women Act (or MARCH for Military Women Act). Rep. Bob Filner (D-CA) also proposed H.R 809, which calls for an explicit display of a Women Veterans Bill of Rights in each facility of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Those are just a few. SWAN provides a comprehensive list of legislative efforts.
However, according to Rock and Stotter, who have spent over two years talking with military service women, civilians can do our veterans a great service by educating themselves about the issues they face and remembering to vote accordingly.
“Realize it’s not an abstraction,” Marcia Rock says. “In terms of what these veterans bring home—the problems, the injuries– we pay for their healing. They go to the VA; we pay for this so if we can stop these injuries from happening, it’s good for all of us.”
For more with Marcia Rock and Patricia Lee Stotter, tune into the latest episode of Third Eye Weekly on BreakThru Radio, airing this Thursday.