Thompson: Women veterans want to be heard

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

Despite serving oversees with honor and courage, women veterans continue to face challenges such as health care, unemployment, lack of financial stability, housing and sexual trauma during service and in transitioning to life after the military.

The Disabled American Veterans in a new report “Women Veterans: The Long Journey Home,” documenting the challenges women face in the military, further underscores the need to address issues women veterans are dealing with.

The report, released Sept. 24, noted that since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, more than 280,000 women have served in wars. Those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq were directly exposed to combat and other violence, according to the report, and while they were excluded from any combat assignments, the women were attached to units as combat medics, military police, explosive ordinance clearance personnel, convoy truck drivers and other risky assignments.

Stephanie Shannon, the head of the Michigan Veterans Task Force, an organization created to bring awareness to the plight of women veterans, says it is time to put the spotlight on the issues facing women veterans in this region because out of more than 46,000 women veterans in Michigan, Wayne County accounts for the highest number at 9,161, according to figures compiled by the Michigan Department of Military and Veteran Affairs.

“We come from all walks of life. We are loving mothers, wives, daughters, educators, leaders, ministers, sisters, aunts and leaders that impact the lives of others. Many people thought I was crazy to join an all-male dominated organization and that it took some unusual amount of strength to endure the stress and burden of being a woman in the military,” said Shannon, 46, who joined the military in 1990 and served eight years. “Serving your country is selfless and not selfish. Women veterans have served since the Revolutionary War, and we are yet to be honored in every aspect of today’s society.”

Shannon, who worked as a transportation specialist in the Army, says part of the problem is that most of the programs available for veterans are exclusively geared toward men.

“I have yet to see a specially designed just-for-women only program that offers long-term support,” Shannon said. “I didn’t feel comfortable at any of the VSA (Veteran Service Agencies) meetings because they were all male dominated. There were no female commanders or leadership, and no women attended the monthly group meetings.”

The DAV report concurred: “The vast majority of these deficiencies result from a disregard for the differing needs of women veterans and a focusing on the 80 percent solution for men who dominate in both numbers and public consciousness,” it said.

Carmencita Pinckney, 48, joined the Navy in 1986 as a religious program specialist working as a chaplain assistant to follow in the footsteps of her father who retired from the Navy. She described sexism in the military as one hurdle that needs to be tackled.

“I think women veterans are faced with the same dilemmas as women in general in this world. We face inequalities, treated unprofessionally, and discounted as sex objects. Women, as men are, should be respected for their education, experience, abilities and work ethics,” said Pinckney, who served two years and remained on reserve for 18 years. “Programs are needed with experienced individuals who are willing to share and help with the red tape and barriers that separate military life and civilian life.”

Felicia West, 56, who joined the Army in 1979 as a wheel power generator mechanic and served four years, says more can be done for women vets by “teaching them life skills, ... setting them up with women mental health groups instead of sticking them in the same groups as men, where they are not free to speak about what’s going on with them.”

Last month’s report from the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs stated that more than 300,000 veterans in the United States may have died waiting for health services and other benefits. It is unclear how many women are in that group. But the problem is symptomatic of the widely reported bureaucracy that veterans face in accessing benefits and health care during their transition to civilian life.

“It’s sickening to know that my brothers and sisters in arms were on waiting lists because of the lack of order and need of timeliness to get the medical attention they needed within the VA medical system,” Shannon said. “I think that everyone responsible should be held accountable for such gross negligence.”

Shannon described her own experience with the VA medical system.

“I experienced delay in mental health services at the time I was deeply depressed with hopelessness and suicidal thoughts and ideations. I relied heavily upon the veteran suicide prevention hotline in which I was instructed that it was not a regular form of treatment it was just a crisis status,” she said. “I finally got the mental health services I needed after suffering alone and without a strong support system. I feel that if we, meaning the veteran population as a whole, can serve our country and lay down our lives for our country, the least our country can do is be there for us when we need them without delay.”

Recently Congress heard blistering testimonies from victims of military sexual trauma, the term used to describe sexual violence against women in the military. Pinckney said tough penalties should be imposed on the offenders.

“The consequences are not severe enough and there are far too many technicalities that allows perpetrators an ‘out.’ Too many crimes are unpunished or covered up. Then the victim has to pick what is left (post-traumatic stress, a nasty stigma and a damaged career and life) and just deal with it,” Pinckney said.

Shannon says she also was a victim of sexual trauma during her years in the service.

“The disappointment I felt was that I was misled by my recruiters and superior officers. I thought service women would receive the same opportunities and treatment as men,” Shannon said. “I experienced MST during the epidemic in which 1 in 3 women were sexually assaulted in the military. I lost my pride in wearing the uniform.”


Bankole Thompson is the host of “Redline with Bankole Thompson,” on WDET-101.9FM at 11 a.m. Thursdays. His column appears Thursdays.