Women have served in the military since the American Revolution; and through those centuries, they have also transitioned from service back into our communities leaving their military days behind them. And yet, we still struggle with a lack of appropriate transitional services, while the number of women veterans is projected to nearly double in the next decade.
When I left active duty in 2007, my future was very uncertain without the safety net the Army provided. I faced the reality that I was not going to be able to do it on my own. A dear friend with whom I served with early on in my career left the Army and moved to California. Once while talking with her over the phone I expressed to her my concerns of finding housing going to school, managing my finances and finding a job. She invited me to stay with her and her husband until I got on my feet. I was extremely reluctant; I didn't want to be a charity case or be a burden on her new marriage. However, she was very persistent and even flew to meet me in DC in order to drive with me across the county to California.
During the last few months I was in the military she helped me sign up for college classes, apply for GI Bill benefits as well as enroll in the VA to get my claim for compensation and pension started. She was able to show me the ropes, I did not fully understand the value of her guidance, friendship and support at the time or how much the support she gave me was the reason I have been able to "successfully transition" to life as a civilian.
Women veterans need the opportunity to talk and socialize with other veterans who can understand and relate to their own experiences. Imagine the impact if each one of us would take the challenge of paying it forward to a fellow woman veteran transitioning -- listening to her story, learning about her strengths and weaknesses helping her navigate through the education, employment, housing and VA health care/benefits system plus her local, state and federal benefits.
One of the main reasons peer support is so important for women veterans is that they are less likely to seek out veteran-specific services and support. Government and community-based organizations are making strides to provide more gender appropriate care and struggle to attract women to their services. But something is missing. It is evident in the fact that women vets are the fastest growing population among our nations homeless. The California Research Bureau (CRB) conducted a survey of California's women veterans and found that a significant number of those survey stated they were unaware of state and federal services and benefits. In addition, the CRB discovered that many find social interactions with civilian friends -- both old and new -- is difficult and leaves them feeling isolated. They describe missing their comrades, and the support structure and 24/7 community provided by being in the military.
Many veterans, male and female, feel that only fellow veterans truly understand them, those wore the same boots and walked the same path. But men have benefited from a history of male-centric care and fraternal veteran organizations; it has been a natural progression of the culture which has been overwhelmingly populated by men. Meanwhile, women veterans are playing catch-up on the history of veteran peer support and mentorship. By providing social and practical help to navigate the systems, but also a support network of other women veterans in our community who continue to carry on the values of serving the common good and remain role models. Peer support is paying it forward.
Looking forward, the common bond of serving, and the distinct experiences we've had in our lives can help guide another's -- not just in struggle but also in success. I meet successful women veterans every day who are professionals, running their own businesses, pursuing graduate school, and raising families. Through peer support and mentoring, we can engage in discussions of sharing what we've learned from our personal experiences, passions, wisdom, and skills in the hopes that it will shed light on another's struggles .
In closing, I want women to know that they are veterans too. I want to remind women veterans that peer support is unique, it is critical, and in my case, it helped me find my footing in life.