Women make up 16 percent of the armed services and serve in all levels of leadership. We bring extraordinary value to the service of our country. But I'm quickly discovering that many women who have served do not recognize themselves as veterans.
There has long been a kind of unwritten rule, perpetuated by our male counterparts, that if you didn't serve in combat you weren't really a veteran, but were simply fulfilling "support" or "service" roles. Women veterans do not have the same experiences as their male counterparts. Women have to fight harder, work harder, complain less and sacrifice more just to be considered equal. We fight the same wars, have the same mission and defend the same country. We mourn the loss of our friends and suffer injuries from the enemy.
Those are the things understood by all veterans, things we agreed to endure in service to our country. But we also have unseen wounds that we did not agree to. They need to be addressed.
We are trained to identify the enemy, but what if the enemy is wearing the same uniform and eating in the same mess hall? While it's not all men, or even the majority, there are predators and deviants among our ranks who prey on women the moment we let our guard down. We are easy targets; we trust our fellow service members, we are a family and we're supposed to look out for each other. The stories are far too frequent. I can't tell you how often in my 15 years of serving I have heard about a woman who has been assaulted.
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Often when it happens we are afraid to report it. We are demoralized and ashamed. We are afraid because of the stigma. We are afraid because we stand to lose everything we have worked so hard for. We are afraid because it feels as though we let the country down. We worry that if America hears about how frequently it happens, we will be told that we shouldn't be serving, and all we have worked so hard for will be lost.
So we stay silent. We can't ever let down our guard, we can never decompress, and it's unsafe for us as long as we are serving. Incest, rape and assault happen every day in the civilian population. It's horrible and disgusting. The military is making headway with rules and regulations about punishments and victim's rights, but it isn't enough.
We must change the way women are viewed and the stigma they feel when they report an assault. We are not weak women; we are dedicated, strong service members who are victims of a crime.
Women's services at our VA hospitals need to be improved. We have what is known as the best VA hospital in the system right here in Minneapolis. We even have what is considered a dedicated women's clinic -- one of but a handful in the national VA system. But even the best in the system needs improvement.
At the VA, women must share a service counter with a general practice that sees men. We have the option of walking down a long hall to a women-only waiting room, but in the end will likely see a male gynecologist. I recently went to the VA for my own compensation and pension physical after leaving the military, and what I experienced was traumatizing in itself. I waited nervously as the male gynecologist entered the room with the door and curtain wide open -- exposing me to anyone in the hallway or reception area. The nurse gently reminded him that he needed to enter the curtain from the other side. I couldn't get out of the room quickly enough.
Such experiences are common for women veterans. It's not surprising that, in Minnesota, less than 7 percent of them seek any of their benefits from the VA system.
We need to ensure that women are being seen by other women in the VA system. We need to make sure that women can make a claim safely without being re-traumatized. We need them to see female gynecologists and female intake counselors. We need them to feel safe when going to appointments at the VA hospitals. I think it's time to offer a 1-800 number for them to call for outreach and services. And the voice on the other end of the line should be a woman's.
Trista Matascastillo, St. Paul, leads the Minnesota Women Veterans Initiative Working Group. She is a veteran with 16 years of service in the Navy, Marine Corps Reserve and Minnesota Army National Guard. She is on a leave of absence from the military.