By Simone Gorrindo
Veterans Day didn’t end on November 11 for Service Women Actions Network, a New York-based national advocacy organization for women veterans. After marching in the Veterans Day Parade, it hosted events throughout the following week, promoting veteran authors and sponsoring a panel discussion on gay and minority rights in the military.
SWAN, founded in 2007, took part in the parade for the first time this year. Supporters from around the country joined the organization to promote recognition of women’s service and struggles in the military. The 40 veterans, bundled in coats and scarves, incited some of the parade’s loudest cheers, but in their military and civilian lives, these women often occupy a lonely role.
“People don’t understand how significant it is to be recognized,” said Genevieve Chase, American Women Veterans executive director and founder. She is an Afghanistan veteran who marched with SWAN.
“Some of us have military stickers on the back of our cars, and veterans will ask: Did your husband serve? When you say, ‘No, I did,’ they just look at you, confused,” said Chase.
Women have served in the U.S. military since the Army and Navy Nurse Corps were established in the early 1900s. Now, more of them are fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan than in any conflict since World War Two. Yet their service often goes unrecognized. Forgotten warriors, they return to roles that convention has laid out for them, feeling apart from the brotherhood of veteran soldiers.
“Many don’t identify as veterans,” said SWAN Policy Director Greg Jacob, 40, of Manhattan, an ex-Marine. “Some come back home to fulfill a caretaker role and compartmentalize that part of their life.”
These women soldiers remain a minority in the barracks, making up 14 percent of all active duty forces, according to the United States Department of Defense. Many find themselves in isolated stations, outcasts among dozens of men.
Marcher Olga Mireles, 47, of San Diego, a Navy reservist who has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan several times, was the only female guard on her compound in Iraq, a detainee prison center. She worked nights as a guard: the ration was 12 U.S. soldiers guarding 500 prisoners. She survived the experience by acting tough, “going into bitch mode,” and making sure she didn’t carry her rifle “like a girl.”
“If you don’t hold your own ground, you get a lot of shit within your own,” Mireles said.
“Within your own,” is an expression common to these women, one of the many slang phrases soldiers create to replace the jargon that cloaks the military in secrecy. Within their own, women are sexually harassed, raped, and pressured by higher-ups to give them sexual favors. Within their own, their reports of these offenses often go unaddressed.
Mireles said a friend is dealing with that right now, struggling to get support from the military authorities.
“When it comes up to the forefront, it gets ugly,” Mireles said. “They either address it or they bury it. If the guys are all buddies, not much is gonna be done about it.”
According to a 2003 study, nearly a third of women veterans report that they were sexually assaulted or raped in the military, and many of these soldiers suffer in silence. Some 80 percent of these rapes are never reported at all, according to the Department of Defense.
U.S. Marine Corps veteran Nicole Steffey, 22, bused in from King of Prussia, Pa. to march with SWAN. She said she was raped in 2008 by a fellow soldier at her base in North Carolina, then shunned and tormented after she reported the offense two months later. Steffey’s commanders told her to “suck it up,” but SWAN helped her get honorably discharged after she and her mother came to the group for help.
She suffered panic attacks after the assault, and has since undergone treatments at three different therapy centers. She is on a cocktail of medication that eases her nerves and keeps her afloat.
“They told me: You’re strong, you can deal with it. This happens everyday on the streets,” said Steffey, holding back tears.
“Yeah,” her mother injected. “But not by your own brother.”
Any soldier will tell you that looking out for fellow servicemen is essential to a platoon’s survival. And, as women are ending up in combat with increased frequency, that support is more important for them than ever.
Yet when they return home seeking help in the aftermath of trauma, their wounds often go untreated. Women, technically banned from combat, are being turned away from Veterans’ Affairs hospitals.
“What’s happening is women are coming back from deployment, coming to the VA with PTSD, nd they’re saying there’s no way you have PTSD because women don’t see combat,” said Jacob. These women are defending convoys and handling 80-pound machine guns. They are shooting and being shot at. They are raiding homes, frisking Iraqi and Afghanistan citizens, and driving Humvees along roads that are littered with homemade bombs. And many, like male soldiers, are addicted to the life.
“It changes you, living with all that adrenalin,” said Mireles. “Afterwards, you can’t do anything else, so you just keep deploying.”