Suicide Rate Among Female Veterans

 

Staggering Findings of Female Veterans

 

The Los Angeles Times has published a piece discussing research that the government has recently released about the suicide rate among female veterans. The research found that female veterans commit suicide at almost six times the rate of other women. Obviously, this begs the question of what is causing this massive difference – is it experiences that women have in the military or is it the type of woman that is more likely to join up, or both? The same questions have been asked about the suicide rate among male veterans for years, but this is the first research that has looked specifically at women.

Learn to Prevent Suicide

Finding out why the rate is so high is extremely important in order to find the right way of addressing the problem. Suicide in the military and among veterans has become a major issue for the military over the last while, with suicide rates among veterans getting more press than they have in years past. According to the research, there is a “suicide gap” between veterans and nonveterans, and between men and women. For nonveterans, men commit suicide at a rate of 20.9 for every 100,000 annually, and women commit suicide at a rate of just 5.2 for every 100,000 annually. However, when we look at the veteran population, the rates (not the actual quantity; just the rate) get much, much closer. Male veterans commit suicide at a rate of 32.1, while female veterans commit suicide at a rate of 28.7. Since the quantity of female veterans is not very high, suicide amongst them has not gotten as much attention. However, this new finding shows a troubling trend among female veterans.

 

The numbers get even worse when controlled for age; young female veterans (between ages 18-29) kill themselves at nearly 12 times the rate of nonveterans. While this may imply that the recent wars are mostly to blame, the fact that even in other age groups, the suicide rate never drops below 4 times the rate of nonveterans, and gets as high as 8 times would imply that there is a common denominator of some kind that can be exacerbated by the time of service. As to the cause, this is from the LA Times:

 

It is not clear what is driving the rates. VA researchers and experts who reviewed the data for The Times said there were myriad possibilities, including whether the military had disproportionately drawn women at higher suicide risk and whether sexual assault and other traumatic experiences while serving played a role.

 

Several case studies provide both insight into the potential problems and obscurity over what the principal causes are. In some cases, the suicide seemed directly linked to experiences had while in service. Specifically, the case of Katie Lynn Cesena, who reported being raped by a fellow service member, who was never prosecuted. Cesena’s mother reported that she was being treated for PTSD and depression, and that she “lived in fear of her purported rapist”. While this case highlights what many of us are inclined to assume are the causes of the higher suicide rate, other cases, such as Linda Raney, suggest that in some cases, veteran status may be nothing more than a coincidence. Raney was 65 at the time she committed suicide, and had encountered several tragedies and life difficulties leading up to her death.

Stoping Suicide

The differences in suicide methods between female veterans and nonveterans also provide potential insight; female veterans are far more likely to use guns as a method than nonveteran females. The researchers hypothesize that this may simply be because veterans are more likely to have access to guns than noveterans. It makes sense that someone who has an understanding and familiarity with firearms would be more likely to use one than someone without that same understanding.

 

Whatever the causes, the higher suicide rate among male and female veterans is something that is worth addressing. Thankfully, we live in a time where respect and gratitude to our veterans is widespread, and we are in a position to make a difference in helping our veterans reduce their risk for committing suicide.

 

Women Veterans Center Opens in Philadelphia

It’s no secret that there is a growing number of women in the military.  Because of this fact, military officials on Tuesday opened Philadelphia’s first center to provide services specifically for women veterans.

 

As was previously stated, military officials were on hand, as well as female veterans, when officials of the Veterans Multi-Service Center cut the ribbon at the Women Veterans Center, a new wing in the Veterans Multi-Service Center, on North Fourth Street in Old City before about 50 people.  The coordinator for the Women’s center, Aronda Smith, hailed the new facility as a place of opportunity and support for women vets. Smith was an Army veteran who served in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm.

 

“One of the reasons we created the Women Veterans Center is because, just like when you serve in the military, [support services] are predominantly male,” she said. “There are not as many services offered for women veterans.”  The Veterans Multi-Service Center is a non-profit facility that has provided services to male veterans since 1980.  Although they have been providing services to women since the mid-1990s, they have not had a wing that specifically deals with the problems that women veterans face.  The women’s center is located the ground floor of the five-story building.

 

“Just to have a private area and to have more gender-specific things that are pertinent to women veterans is important,” Smith said.

 

The women’s center is going to offer an array of services and workshops, including health and wellness, parenting after combat, employment counseling, credit counseling, networking, yoga, and home ownership.  A Navy veteran, Sonya Searcy, said she welcomed the new center.

 

“I hope that all of us female veterans are off the street and have jobs and are well-taken care of in 2014,” she said.

 

One of the many other women veterans who attended the grand opening was Bernadette Ricketts, who served in the Air Force. She is hopeful that the center, in her words, “would help female veterans rebuild their foundations in the civilian world.”

 

Smith noted that among women veterans, “military sexual trauma” (MST) has become a significant problem.  The women’s center will be offering counseling and help to those who need it.

 

“Sometimes there is a lack of understanding of what MST actually means, and sometimes that means that women don’t get the services they need,” Smith said.

 

Military Sexual Trauma is the term that the Department of Veterans Affairs uses to refer to sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment that occurred while the veteran was in the military.  It includes any sexual activity where someone is involved against his or, in most cases, her will.  He or she may have been pressured into sexual activities (for example, with threats of negative consequences for refusing to be sexually cooperative or with implied faster promotions or better treatment in exchange for sex), may have been unable to consent to sexual activities (for example, when intoxicated), or may have been physically forced into sexual activities. Other experiences that fall into the category of MST include unwanted sexual touching or grabbing, threatening, offensive remarks about a person’s body or sexual activities, and/or threatening or unwelcome sexual advances.

 

Supposedly, all veterans seen at Veterans Health Administration facilities are asked about experiences of sexual trauma, but having this women’s center encourages them to seek help even more.  It is known that any type of trauma can affect a person’s physical and mental health, even many years later, but it’s also known that people can recover from trauma.  Women veterans who are suffering from MST now have a safe place where they can seek help and recovery from bad experiences during their service in the military.

 

Officials of the state said there are more than 82,000 veterans in Philadelphia alone, and that 3 percent to 5 percent are women. There are 61,000 female veterans in Pennsylvania alone.  Lori Maas, the women veterans program manager for the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in West Philadelphia, said that women are the fastest growing group using veterans services.  The new women’s center has already enrolled 200 women into the many programs it offers, Smith said. The Veterans Multi-Service Center serves about an average of 2,500 veterans per year.

 

The past executive director of the Veterans Multi-Service Center, Marsha Four, is urging women veterans to share their experiences with each other.

 

“You can give so much to each other by sharing. . . . You have the opportunity to work toward changes,” Four said. “You should be proud of your service. Stay connected and stay strong.”

Lawmakers Disagree on How to Proceed with Military Sexual Assaults

It looked for a moment that the House and Senate outrage over the way the military has been (not) dealing with sexual assault cases would result in quick bipartisan action. The latest events suggest a mixed bag of results as lawmakers grapple with this high-profile problem.

Wednesday a key Senate panel voted to continue allowing commanders to oversee the prosecution of military sexual assaults. The vote accompanied a rare display of Democratic infighting over how to combat a rising problem in the ranks. The Senate Armed Services Committee voted 17-9 in favor of an amendment sponsored by its chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., rather than a competing one offered by Kirsten Gillibrand D-N.Y.

Gillibrand argued passionately with fellow members of the panel to support her proposal, which she said would help to increase the reporting of sex crimes by removing the chain of command from their prosecution. “The victim fears retaliation,” she said. “It’s the reporting we need to change.” Gillibrand and other supporters of her proposal were infuriated with the Senate panel vote, which they feel simply continues the status quo, broken and flawed as it is.

State courts already have authority over rape and sexual assault cases should a victim choose to go to civilian law enforcement, but such cases are rare because the military prefers to prosecute its own personnel. Military leaders have been roundly condemned for dismissing cases or overturning guilty verdicts in other cases under their command.

Senator McCain Minces No Words

If you missed it, Sen. John McCain expressed his frustration with the military by telling top U.S. military chiefs he could not advise women to join the service so long as the sexual-assault scourge in the military remains unresolved.

“I cannot overstate my disgust and disappointment over continued reports of sexual misconduct in our military,” said McCain, a former Navy pilot and POW. McCain bluntly chastised the military chiefs saying, “we’ve been talking about this issue for years, and talk is insufficient.”

Senator Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vermont, chimed in this week by telling Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that Congress could seek to replace commanders in power with state prosecutors to deal with the military sexual assault cases. “To do things as they’ve always been done is not acceptable,” Mr. Leahy said. Senator Leahy made his comments during a spending hearing that included Mr. Hagel and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

How Do You Feel?

So, change is on the way with the way the military addresses sexual assault cases. The trouble is, we just can’t be sure as yet what exactly to expect by way of change. The pressure for reform is great right now, with public outrage fueling the fire. Lawmakers go at it mano a mano but have yet to produce anythingthat resembles a unified decision. Meanwhile, here we wait.

It’s more than a bit insulting that on a subject as important as this, and for the sheer numbers of people in the military who have reported being victimized by unwanted sexual advances and criminal violation, we can’t get in place laws to protect the basic human right of protection. This is happening in our military.

What a travesty that we have so many in positions of responsibility who apparently lack an understanding of how personally devastating a sexual assault is on the human spirit and on the human soul. This isn’t sexual roulette—all fun and games for adults. This is about raw criminal behavior. People are forcing themselves upon other people, apparently with great frequency in every branch of the military. The culture there allows them to do this and get away with it. That’s wrong. No excuses. It’s high time our military leaders and our lawmakers address these cases with that in mind.

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DOD Report on Sexual Assault in the Military

The Department of Defense just released its annual report on the problem of sexual assault in the military. The report, based on anonymous surveys conducted throughout the military branches, shows that 26,000 people in the military were sexually assaulted in the 2012 fiscal year, up from 19,000 in the same period a year before.

For its part, the military recorded only 3,374 sexual assault reports last year, up from 3,192 in 2011. The  discrepancies between privately reported and publicly reported suggest that many sexual assault victims do not report the crimes for fear of retribution or a lack of justice under the department’s system for prosecuting them.

The report created immediate outrage in Washington, the White House, and among cabinet members. The emotion on display has been accelerated by the arrest over the weekend of Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, an Air Force officer who led the branch’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response unit. He has been charged with groping a woman in a parking lot.

Reaction to the Report on Sexual Assaults

The report has kindled a conflagration of response, and the arrest of Krusinski has been like jet fuel to the inferno. Here is a sampling of the censure that has been directed at the military:

  • President Obama’s reaction was incendiary  “I have no tolerance for this,” he said. “If we find out somebody’s engaging in this stuff, they’ve got to be held accountable, prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged—period.”
  • Washington lawmakers quickly denounced the increased number of assaults as “horrifying,” vowing to introduce legislation that will “fundamentally” change the way the military investigates and prosecutes the crime.
  • Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel released a statement saying he has spoken with Air Force Secretary Michael Donley to express “outrage and disgust over the troubling allegations.” Donley, in particular, has been a lightning rod, given the arrest of Krusinski.
  • Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York was practically yelling as she addressed Donley in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing over the continued pattern of sexual assault on women. Gillibrand openly questioned whether the military was capable of investigating and prosecuting the crimes. She said this scandal was “undermining the credibility of the greatest military force in the world.”

Senator Gillibrand is seeking to have all sex offenders in the military discharged from service; she would also like to replace the current system of resolving sexual assault by taking it outside a victim’s chain of command. Gillibrand also questioned the willingness of the military to hold accountable and punish its guilty, citing in particular the recent decision made by an Air Force general, who reversed guilty verdicts in sexual assault cases with little explanation.

President Obama instructed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel “to step up our game exponentially” to prevent sex crimes in the military and hold offenders accountable. “For those who are in uniform who’ve experienced sexual assault, I want them to hear directly from their commander in chief that I’ve got their backs,” he added.

The indignation in the nation’s capital and throughout the country suggests that real change is on the way regarding how the military addresses allegations of sexual abuse and prosecutes such cases. No matter the details of who conducts the upcoming Krusinski trial, expect them to make a statement with the case. Public awareness on these matters is at an all-time high and the pressure to exact justice for criminal behavior is enormous.

Air Force chief of staff, General Mark Welsh, said military lawyers would request jurisdiction in the case involving Lt. Col. Krusinski.  Welsh’s public reaction has been that he is “appalled” by Krusinski’s arrest. “It is unacceptable that this occurs anytime or anywhere in our Air Force,” Welsh added. Welsh said that Arlington County prosecutors would make a final decision about whether to grant jurisdiction in the case to the military.

A vast portion of these reported sexual assaults in the military is against women. With the military’s January 2013 decision to lift the ban on women serving in combat roles, clearly the Armed Services need strong policy statements on how they will protect their own. If the decision is to put men and women together in battle situations where the black and white rule of law is grayed for the fierceness of the circumstances, soldiers have to know they will be protected against abuse from within.

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Women in Combat – Lessons Learned

By now you have likely heard about the changes that the U.S. Military has made regarding its policies for women serving in combat roles. The Department of Defense has openly recognized women’s contributions to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just as the nature of war has changed in the last decades, so have long-held attitudes and opinions about women serving in the military.

Most people would be surprised to know just how long there has been controversy concerning women’s roles in battle. Would you believe the debate goes back to the 18th century, back to the Revolutionary War? A woman by the name of Margaret Corbin manned a cannon during the battle of Ft. Washington in New York. She also became the first woman to receive a military pension, though it was half of what the men got.

Iraq and Afghanistan Wars

The Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns began with US military policy prohibiting women from serving in combat roles. Army commanders got around the letter of the law by “attaching” women to combat units instead of having them assigned to the same.

The military found that women have the physical stamina to finish the job. Additionally, despite the fears of some, having women co-mingled in combat units has not disrupted the cohesion of those units. A recent NPR article weighs in on the debate concerning the combat readiness of female soldiers.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the military benefited from female soldiers in ways that surprised almost everyone. For instance, for cultural reasons, male soldiers were not allowed to search women for bombs or weapons. U.S. female soldiers, however, could and did.

There was an unforeseen benefit: it was soon apparent that the Iraqi and Afghanistan women would talk to other women. Female soldiers gathered intelligence that the men could not get.

Looking at the Details

The military still has to grapple with certain policies and figure out how to deal with the realities of men and women side-by-side on the battlefield.

For example, men and women will need separate bunks and bathrooms. And some women will be evacuated because of pregnancy. These are things that may require some new planning within the military.

Larger Issues Face by Women in the Military

Of utmost importance is that the US military take the proper steps to ensure sexist attitudes and practices are not perpetuated. Facing the military’s problem with sexual violence head-on is one of the most critical issues to face, and military leaders are currently working to address the issue—which is one that has attracted the attention of the House and Senate as well.

Another important issue women in the military face is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD hits 20 to 30 percent of veterans who serve in Iraq and Afghanistan. We know that these pressures can be tremendous, including intensified anger and a higher suicide rate than noncombatants, but it’s still too early to say whether the disorder affects women differently than men.

It will likely take some time to analyze women’s experiences with the trauma of combat. Some female soldiers have come forward for help, and there is at least some evidence that female soldiers feel pressure to hide their true feelings and struggles for fear of being perceived as feeble or weak.

We expect that those sorting out military policy in these relatively new areas will exercise caution. We should hope to find decision makers willing to set, adjust, and change policies according to data. We also hope that their decisions secure and promote the health, safety, and effectiveness of the military unit and those that form a part of it.

Honoring Women in Combat

Some 280,000 women have worn American uniforms in Afghanistan and Iraq, where more than 150 have died and over 800 have been injured. Hundreds of female soldiers have received a Combat Action Badge, awarded for actively engaging with a hostile enemy. Two women, Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester, and Specialist Monica Lin Brown, have been awarded Silver Stars—one of the highest military decorations awarded for valor in combat—for their service in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We hope these women will always be honored and treated with the respect that all our veterans deserve.

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Women in the U.S. Military

Did you know that woman have been part of the United States Armed Forces since 1901 with the establishment of the Army Nurse Corps? Today, women are serving in the military in greater numbers than ever before, accounting for 20% of all new recruits.

Below, you can continue to learn about the role women play in our military. We appreciate their service and hope you enjoy the infographic below. Just click on the image to enlarge. Please feel free to comment with any interesting tidbits you think we should have included in the infographic—we’d love to hear!

Women in the U.S. Military

 

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