Women and War

Yesterday was Veterans Day, and President Obama marked the event by laying a wreath at Arlington Cemetery.

The rituals of Veterans Day are all very scripted, solemn and patriotic.  There are always serious faces, the requisite honoring of old men, the sporting of uniforms, remarks about freedom and sacrifice and America being great.

All in all, it’s a very male event.

But the military is changing.  Since 9/11,over  200,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This means that there are a whole host of health issues that are now part of the military that weren’t before, and the VA medical system is struggling to keep up. According to the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN):

Only 15% of women veterans use VA facilities. VA culture is still rife with male-bias, leading many women veterans to feel that the VA cannot properly attend to their gender-specific health needs […] Furthermore, VA healthcare is characterized by its “fragmentation,” meaning that women are not able to access comprehensive health services from their primary providers but rather must be referred elsewhere or travel enormous distances for routine services such as gynecological exams. Additionally, VA hospitals often foster uncomfortable, unwelcoming or hostile environments for women.

The VA is doing some work to address this, and for that they should be commended. The VA has initiated  “Culture Change Campaign” complete with PSAs:


Still, the biggest health challenge faced by female veterans, however, is not figuring out where to get a Pap test, it’s dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault, often perpetrated by their own colleagues. As many as one out of three  (!!) women leaving military service have reported being the victim of some kind of sexual assault. Rape and sexual assault continues to be a huge problem for women in all branches of the US military.

Part of this is because of the nature of military culture. To a significant extent, constructs of masculinity, of what it means to be a man, are built on domination of women. And the military is nothing if not a masculine institution.  In her book Earth Follies,  Joni Seager points out the “surprisingly transparent phallic imagery” that pervades military language: “soft laydowns, deep penetration, hard missiles.”

I mean, what does this look like to you?

Is an army without rape even possible?

Even more disturbing is the fact that this epidemic of sexual assault is unequally distributed across the population, given that the US Army consists of an all-volunteer force. According to the Population Reference Bureau,  while the most powerful predictors of who will serve in the military are survey responses indicating that people want to serve, or expect to serve, in the military, enlistment is also highly contingent on social class.

Children of college educated parents are less likely to serve. Those with higher  high school grades are less likely to serve. African Americans and Hispanics are more likely to serve than whites. That means that an African American woman whose parents do not have a college education is more likely to enlist and be at risk for sexual assault than a white woman from an affluent family whose parents have a college education. Once again, health disparities are contingent on income and social class.

It’ssomething to think about amidst all the parades and noble speeches about the greatest generation.

What are your thoughts? Have you been in the military? Known someone who is? What do you think are the most pervasive issues female soldiers and veterans face?


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