Leaving The Military Wasn't My Idea: How Separation Status May Affect Homelessness in Women Veterans

12/27/2017 12:08 pm ET Updated Jan 01, 2018
Women veterans are the fastest growing demographic among homeless veterans, as their numbers expand in the military overall.
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Women veterans are the fastest growing demographic among homeless veterans, as their numbers expand in the military overall.

Ask enough women veterans about their own experiences with homelessness and you hear a consistent refrain — that they were “unprepared” for life after the military, that homelessness “surprised” them, and that they were consequently unable to plan for it. In an effort to better understand the topic overall, we surveyed almost 3,000 women veterans — from every service era from World War II to the present — about housing issues and homelessness after military service.

The big picture

While six in 10 respondents said they experienced no problems whatsoever, the other four in 10 experienced unstable housing or homelessness ranging from months to years. These results varied little by branch of service, which was a surprise. We also asked women veterans about what type of discharge they received as they left the military, knowing from recent research that what are known as “bad paper discharges,” particularly in male veterans, are associated with negative outcomes including homelessness.

In their June 2017 research paper, Ali Tayyeb, Ph.D. and Jennifer Greenburg, Ph.D., note the increase in “other than honorable” discharges from World War II, when they represented a mere one percent of all discharges, to Vietnam (2.5 percent) and post-9/11 veterans (almost six percent). Emily Brignone, Ph.D, who wrote her 2017 dissertation on misconduct discharges, took a look at the records of more than 300,000 post-9/11 veterans who were receiving health care from the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) and observed that

“Discharge from military service for reasons related to misconduct is associated with a multitude of serious negative post-deployment outcomes, including mental health and substance use disorders, homelessness, suicide, and incarceration.

Brignone also cites her work with colleagues including Adi Gundlapalli, M.D., Ph.D. that found that veterans with misconduct discharges were approximately five times more likely to become homeless than routinely discharged counterparts.

But for the women veterans in our IRB-approved study — more than 2,000 of whom answered questions about discharge status — bad conduct or even less than honorable discharges were almost nonexistent. Together, they represented less than one percent of the respondents. Instead, 96 percent of the women veteran respondents had honorable discharges, and the remaining three percent had general discharges.

Despite the fact that 40 percent of the women veterans we surveyed had experienced some form of housing instability or homelessness after military service, it didn’t look fruitful to pursue a connection with discharge type. So midway through administering the survey, a different question (paraphrased below) was added for subsequent respondents:

When you left the military, was the separation voluntary (your choice) or involuntary (theirs)?

Of the almost 1,000 women veterans who responded to this question, a little over three-quarters (76 percent) left the military of their own accord, whereas one quarter (24 percent) left involuntarily, including as the result of a medical examination board.

“I was medically retired against my wishes,” said one woman Army veteran who was able to serve less than one full term of her enlistment. The condition? “PTSD related to reporting (my rape in the military) and testifying about the rape.”

In our study, when women veterans left the military before they had planned to via involuntary separation, more than two-thirds (68 percent) struggled later with unstable housing or homelessness. By comparison, fewer than half (45 percent) of women veterans experienced similar negative outcomes when they left the military as planned or by their own choice, such as at the end of a full term of enlistment.

Melissa Dichter, Ph.D. and Gala True, Ph.D., who interviewed 35 women veterans about their premature separations from the military and published a journal article about it in 2014, noted that:

‘‘The additional stressors placed on women in the military may cause them to leave the service prematurely, with real consequences to the development of their own human capital through schooling, training, and leadership experience and also through potential forfeiture of benefits tied to career service.”
There are more than 2 million women veterans in the U.S. today, according to 2016 figures available from the U.S. Department
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There are more than 2 million women veterans in the U.S. today, according to 2016 figures available from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

In our study, a post-9/11 Air Force veteran who served less than a full term narrowly escaped homelessness, thanks to having a supportive family who took her in. (”I know all women veterans are not so lucky,” she added.) But she also left as the result of a medical board decision, due to the effects of sexual harassment and bullying. As she says:

“I believe that people need to stop thinking that just because . . .veterans are female that they will automatically have a home or that someone will just take them in. It doesn't always work that way and there needs to be more done to help these women especially if their homelessness is due to their trauma.”

Another Air Force veteran, who served during the Gulf War era and was medically retired “due to trauma,” reports having experienced sexual harassment, stalking and sexual assault during her single term of military service. Although she has since earned her doctorate, she says that she never felt able to “maintain stable housing continuously” since leaving the military and was homeless several times.

Of the women veterans who were able to make it to retirement, usually considered 20 years of service for enlistees, more than three in four in our survey reported no problems with homelessness. But for those who were medically retired — separated from the military as the result of a medical board examination, colloquially known as being “med-boarded out,” more than half experienced unstable housing or homelessness.

As Brignone’s research suggests,

“...The premature nature of non-routine separation may leave veterans unprepared for the challenges associated with separation from service and (may make them) more vulnerable to difficulties during early re-integration.”

Connecting the dots

Although research into the causes of female veteran homelessness will likely continue for years, the connection to military sexual trauma is an important one among the many strands being developed. And now it seems like a connection to discharge type and separation status is also worth exploring — including whether differences apply by gender. Questions for further exploration include:

  • Are male veterans more likely than female veterans to receive misconduct discharges?
  • Are female veterans who separate involuntarily from the military, including via a medical retirement, more likely to experience homelessness?
  • To what extent are misconduct discharges or involuntary separations associated with experience of military sexual trauma? How about as retaliation for reporting?

Tayyeb and Greenburg explore the retaliatory aspect of misconduct discharges in their paper. They also mention that “until recently, when this practice was brought to light . . . the military commonly used this mechanism to quickly remove and punish rape victims.” In doing so, they cite the prior work of Human Rights Watch, an international human rights organization, and their 2016 report, “Booted,” that examines whether the military might be branding veterans who reported rapes with “pre-existing personality disorders” in order to discharge them. You can read about one such woman veteran who Human Rights Watch profiled here.

(To be clear, we’re not assuming MST is the predominant reason why women veterans separate early from the military — or that retaliation for reporting sexual harassment, assault or rape is the norm. However, talk to — or survey — enough women veterans, and you will quickly see anecdotally how frequent these comments become, enough so that it’s crucial to take these issues into account.)

Doubtless the threads of gender, military sexual trauma, reporting sexual harassment and assaults and then potential retaliation for reporting — plus discharge type or separation status — are wound together in ways that at least initially may be difficult to unravel. But paying attention to these nuances may be important in figuring out why women veterans become homeless, and how to reduce the numbers of those who do.

Although Brignone brings up the high cost of training service members — a figure she estimates as approximately $50,000 per recruit — an expense which is lost when service members are discharged for misconduct — the softer costs are lost as well, as women veterans abandon the military careers they had chosen. As Dichter and True write:

“Women in our study shared stories that demonstrated a direct connection between experiencing such an assault and developing mental health problems that contributed to their separation from service; many saw these events as robbing them of opportunities they had hoped to gain through enlisting in the military. Additionally, some women observed that it was the military’s handling of their sexual assault cases—and in particular the sense of betrayal and risk of being assaulted again when women were put in the position of continuing to serve with or under the perpetrator—that played a primary role in their decision to separate from service.”

NOTE: This article is a continuation of the ongoing series, “Coming Out of the Shadows: Women Veterans and Homelessness,” initially published under a Howard G. Buffett inaugural grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation. You can find a link to the IRB-approved survey for U.S. women military veterans and currently serving female reservists here, as long as it stays open.

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