When Veterans Day was started in 1918 as a way to honor World War I vets, it was originally called Armistice Day. Back then, even though women served in the military, they weren't officially recognized as veterans and given veterans benefits (that wouldn't happen for another quarter century). Times have obviously changed. Today, women serve in all branches of the armed forces, and constitute 14 percent of the veteran population.
Most people would agree that how we treat our vets is a measure of our character as a country. We do pretty well in some areas, but fall down in others. Homelessness is one of the worst. It's way too high for both male and female vets -- and this is one place where women are catching up to men. Men constitute 86 percent of active duty forces, and make up 90 percent of the homeless veteran population. For women, the numbers are 14 percent and 10 percent respectively.
But the reasons are different.
Substance abuse and mental illness are leading causes for male returnees. Women can suffer from those too, and they also face barriers like a harder time finding a job and/or VA supported family housing. But unlike the men, homelessness for our female ex-soldiers actually takes root before they leave the military. Experts agree that a huge contributing factor is sexual trauma from rapes and other assaults during their service. Because they couldn't report the crimes, or were punished when they did, many women suffer from post traumatic stress disorder and lose their jobs, families, and ultimately their homes.
Though 26,000 sexual assaults occurred last year, only 3,374 were officially reported, and a miniscule 300 were prosecuted. According to the Defense Department, reports are up over 50 percent in the first three quarters of this year.
One reason the great majority of sexual assaults are not reported -- or the victims instead of the perpetrators are punished -- is the military chain of command. Victims must report crimes to those who oversee their careers, and commanders have final say over whether criminal charges are brought in military courts. That means all too often attackers get off with a slap on the wrist, or the "she wanted it" defense is accepted. Even if they're convicted, the boss can overturn the jury verdict with the stroke of a pen.
A bill sponsored by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY and supported by women's groups would put military prosecutors in charge, instead of commanders. The military, aided by their lap dogs on the Armed Services Committee, is backing a weaker bill sponsored by Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO). That one would do away with the ability to overturn jury verdicts and mandate dishonorable discharge or dismissal for those convicted, but otherwise keep the good ol' boy chain of command in place for deciding who gets prosecuted in the first place.
Right now the brass is winning the argument. Gillibrand's bill is 13 short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster, even though all of the Democratic women except McCaskill and two of the four Republican female senators have signed on.
Meanwhile, too many of our female vets are falling into homelessness. How many more will sleep in shelters or the streets until justice is served?Listen to the 2 minute radio commentary here:
Follow Martha Burk on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MarthaBurk