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Citizen Soldier: Change and Challenges – Women in Today's Military



the following is a production of the Pritzker military library made possible by the support of easter seals inc with additional support from the chicago foundation for women join me Stacey baka my distinguished panel as we discussed the important issues facing women in today's military next on citizen soldier welcome to the crisper military library citizen-soldier produced in partnership with Easter Seals Inc with additional support from Chicago Foundation for women I'm Stacey vaca joining me today are three women who through their professional and academic pursuits are working toward a better understanding of the issues facing women in the military and female veterans Erika Berggren is the director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs she previously served as a senior staff member for general david petraeus and was awarded the defense Meritorious Service Medal and the Bronze Star dr. Rebecca J Hannigan is on the faculty of political science at Northern Illinois University she specializes in the study of political attitudes and behavior with particular focus on gender differences Kimberly Mitchell serves as the deputy director of the Dixon Center her 17 years of service in the u.s. Navy included a commission as a Surface Warfare Officer service aboard several surface Navy combatant or ships and multiple short tours in Washington DC so I would like to welcome all of our guests today we have so much to talk about today so much to cover and with in recent months the issue of women going into combat rules and we really want to discuss try to get to the details of what that will look like and what that means and I know that we have two veterans here too so Erika do you mind starting just what are your thoughts on this latest development in recent months sure so as you mentioned the in recent months that the combat the ban on combat positions and women serving in those positions was lifted with a couple year timeline in mind and and I suppose I hear that heard that news of the time anyway through through two lenses one is a professional lens that clearly sitting as the director of Veterans Affairs for the state here in Illinois I hear that and think we have a growing veteran community and changing demographics in the veteran community and we sure need to be prepared to support the unique needs of women veterans as a result of that personally though I heard that news and think how encouraging and exciting it is to see that progress it's something that I was talked about from my earliest days in uniform when I was at West Point and you it's a recognition of what's been happening for the last decade plus where women have really proven their mettle in combat situations it encourages you to dream differently as a woman in uniform and to think of this you're The Sisterhood of those in arms differently because before you couldn't really dream of being the chairman the Joint Chiefs the center of gravity in the military world isn't in those combat branches I think there's there are already women who serve in combat roles they they drive they work in the medics helping people and I think it might change over the years they're thinking about getting women on submarines women serving in combat roles it's something that's very long overdue I myself am I was a combat medic so for me I was on the front line as well as my male counterparts women were there as nurses they're their admin people they're their supply types and they're already serving in combat zones and they're coming back with the same scars that men have you know obviously they're going to be some challenges do you anticipate as a veteran Kim the challenge of incorporating men and women in critical roles – I mean you were on Surface Warfare ships you know how it is to be right there side-by-side men doing the same job essentially well yes there there is going to be challenges but I think that it's gonna have to be from a top-down command policy it's already been put out by the Secretary of Defense that this is the policy this is the way it's going so it has to be taken on on board fully by the entire the entire command top-down structure and I believe that women have been serving for over the Erica said the past decade in combat roles already so this is just a natural progression towards equality and the recognition of women who have been in service their combat their valor and their and their loyalty to this country I believe it comes down to leadership the role of leadership in assisting with the transition and we've seen the military do this effectively in many other places absolutely you're talking about race gays in the military now women aboard ships and submarines and everything else so you're right we've seen this before and it's really gonna take some some fantastic women who are willing to break that barrier for us or we'll eat first absolutely because there's gonna be a culture change that will take probably decades I had this one guy say the Navy was ruined when they allow women to join it and he believed that he didn't care if you were black white or Hispanic he said women have no place in the military they're a distraction and you go to complain it's like oh yeah but he's a salty sailor don't worry about it he'll get over it it's gonna be fine but truly it's not because you're still dealing with comments that are made or you're a girl so you can't think or the blonde over there you know she can't think past what's in front of her just total disrespect and harassment and it still exists they just kind of turn a blind eye and say oh that you just suck it up deal with it maybe the people who say yes I support women in combat but and they kind of use that but statement which kind of then Nick say is the entire statement before it's so not really providing support so how are we going to get past that what is it going to take in other words for this to be successful one of the critiques of course comes down to women being physically capable of frontline combat roles and I think that if it comes down to having standards and convincingly showing everybody that women who serve in those roles have messy standards then you have some evidence that can't be denied but what you're talking about this yesBut phenomenon has huge implications for changing culture if people in leadership positions continue to say yes but they're not really pulling their weight or yes but we've only seen women serving in defensive combat roles and not off of combat roles and yes but right it's not really validating exactly the females position within that rule well and it doesn't validate their role and it also causes conflicts for the men who are then expected to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their female colleagues and get a job done right because that's sending a message when you say yes I support it but that in itself is a message in some ways too absolutely we talked a little bit about this model of integration and making changes integrating and now bringing women to this environment aside from just the basic challenge of combat rules and if we should have the same sort of standards what else do you see as being important you mentioned leadership is there anything else that's integral to making this training needs to be the same training and if you expect a soldier sailor Airman marine to perform a duty the training has to be the same doesn't matter if you're male or female train them to do the job and they will and hold them to those standards and they will perform I had gone to boot camp and I mean I had realized that I was a stronger person than I perceived myself to be so I definitely wanted to be able to involve myself with individuals who had that same passion and determination and the drive to you know make themselves a better person think the training that I had made the bond with my fellow soldiers more stronger I mean we still saw guys as guys they were cute or not cute that didn't change in uniform or out of uniform the relationship with girls girls are still gonna be girls you know it wasn't it wasn't like that the military brought about teamwork it taught us how to function as one how to look out for one another so we had a mindset had to change if you came there initially thinking that the military was all about me see me you were sadly mistaken you had to conform to a oneness the the standards the tests right that you have to pass in order to to be in that role in the first place should be equal but they should all also be realistic what the person actually has to do in there day in day out job so you know if women don't do as well at climbing over the 10-foot wall its climbing over the 10-foot wall an imperative feat to have accomplished in the training prior to undertaking this job so I think to have standards that match the job and to have them equal to perhaps reevaluate some of the standards but to make sure that they're equal is important as well women who desire to do combat mo s's should be given the opportunity to take the training and like their counterparts our male counterparts are given the opportunity to fail at the very least you know and if they feel they're given the opportunity to retake you know different specialties I mean sometimes most most of the male counterparts do not initially make the training the first try and I feel like the same opportunity she'll be given and to women who want to to be active in those specialties I think women can and should be allowed to train and beyond that if that's what they'd like to do for equality purposes let's talk a little bit about and you touched upon this Erika slightly to being able to advance in the military and how important is it that you serve in combat because it seems like that when you talk about climbing the ladder that if you hadn't seen that maybe your chances of climbing that ladder weren't necessarily there do you see it as a major part of being able to climb the chain in the army world anyway to say that you have combat experiences to say that you've deployed to a combat zone it's not necessarily to say that you have been in a firefight have I have I seen at least among women that there is a distinguishment among who might have heard a combat action badge IRA looted to this earlier this is something the the army put in place a few years ago where it doesn't matter what branch you're in if you got into a firefight or we were in the line of fire then you get recognized with that combat action badge so that's a distinguished distinguisher from saying I served in a combat zone you certainly have to have served in a combat zone to to advance to upper echelon of leadership all right do you see this being a beneficial at this point – from an AV standpoint for the higher ranks of leadership we see that as being an operational surface warfare being is an operational billet aviation is an operational billet now with women on submarines that's an operational billet if you are an operator then there the likelihood of advancing is greater than if you're just maybe a career staff staff officers so the more experience that one has the better chances of advancement obviously women in combat is one issue but the second half of the story really which is a critical part is when women are able to transition from military life to veteran life and what that means because now that women are going to be in combat – the services on the back half and the back side that has to reflect and that has to look like what was on the front side right sure you know a lot of the issues that women veterans struggle with in the transition are the same issues that male veterans struggle with in the transition but I think there are a few unique or complicating factors in it there are those three I think range from anything this military sexual trauma which is our very technical way of saying that a lot of women a shocking percentage of women endorse some kind of sexual assault during their time and service that's one aspect a lot of women veterans are caregivers and that keeps them from coming out and taking advantage of the services that are there their caregivers and higher percentages than their male counterparts and so it's harder to reach them it's harder to access the services if you can't bring your child to the job fair or make your VA appointment and then women veterans in general self-identify less those veterans and so we here we have all this support and robust systems out there all kinds of organizations and people wanting to help but women veterans don't come out of the woodwork are there programs out there that are grabbing women that are telling them female veterans come you're important we can help you you deserve these services are there oh yes there's there's many very good programs specifically focused on women grace after fire is a great organization service women's Advocacy Network and freedom cares are three very very good programs that address specifically females who have served in combat all right a lot of services they're the two that are needed and when you talk about women going and getting the help that they need whether it's PTSD military sexual trauma to being another critical issue just why don't we start off with the definition of that what specifically is military sexual trauma military sexual trauma is a term that was coined by the VA to deal with traumas that are resultant of any sexual contact including sexual harassment sexual assault as well as completed rape while serving as a member of the military based on the cohort that we're talking about whether we're talking about Gulf War era women or whether we're talking about current women who are serving we get anywhere from a fifth to half reporting military sexual trauma how does that compare to the general population it's higher it's it's higher it's higher than either childhood sexual assault or adult sexual assault I had an individual senior NCO tell me that I had to wear my skirt two inches above my knee and tighten my shirt so that it showed what type of figure I had and I complained about that and told him he couldn't touch me and they put me on midnight shift you know it just doesn't affect this so it just doesn't affect the individual it affects how they it affects how they deal with people how they deal with their fellow soldiers moving forward there was ways that we could avoid it or use our chain of command in order to stop it it it really wasn't something that was looked upon as you know and was just okay well if if it happened it happened just you know deal with it and drive on so it really even though there were measures to prevent it it they weren't really enforced if I could change one thing about the military it would be the different laws and Bill's they have and they follow when it comes to military sexual trauma and the different things that happen and how people who have committed violent acts and sexual harassment and more what happens afterwards what is it about the military setting that may contribute or may not is there something there much of the scholarship points to a culture that hasn't been particularly open or friendly to the integration of women so some of it sort of argues that there is this culture of masculinity that tends to sort of dominate the military some some of the arguments refer to the reporting investigation and prosecution mechanisms are all within the chain of command right how it's reported how it's handled within a linear structure exactly one of the things that that I believe and many of us who are attempting to work on this problem from more of an academic standpoint is that yes this is absolutely a problem this this anyone who who believes that women should be treated with the same integrity and respect as members of the United States military as men should believe that this is a problem however the problem exists in the military but I think the solution does too there are plenty of units and there are plenty of leaders that simply would not tolerate this kind of behavior and so it is not the case empirically even with the evidence that we've amassed so far that all men if given the opportunity will rape women that's simply not true many women have assaulted while serving in the military but many have not do either of you as veterans have anything to add to that well I think that if there is a command that has any incidents of military sexual trauma that's not being reported I hold the commander responsible I think every report of military sexual trauma sexual harassment needs to be taken seriously and needs to be given the due course of evaluation without having it being stopped at the first level when you look at the different statistics here military sexual trauma has been associated with increased risk of PTSD depression substance abuse so it's almost linked to other issues it's just not a solitary issue it becomes a bigger issue bigger problems too well if it's just combat right they're likely to do okay compared to their male cohort if they are assaulted by a fellow soldier that's likely to predict this other set of issues that you mentioned right depression alcohol abuse drug abuse which can lead to long-term physical and psychological problems and it goes back then to women in combat because you will find that atmosphere no more more prevalent than in the combat arms branches where the the there are no women and so that's why leadership is gonna be especially important to prevent the military sexual trauma trend from from going the wrong direction yeah all right another issue women veterans have ish issues that are gender focus that need to be addressed too so we're talking about this you're trying to find childcare for your kids you're trying to find a job well they're all so interrelated all those issues I mean the fact that you end up having a homeless woman veteran who perhaps has children and now she can't find a homeless shelter is related to the fact that she was having trouble finding a job maybe going to the job fair in the first place maybe couldn't take advantage of her VA benefits because she couldn't make the appointment women use the VA 30% less they're all interrelated factors and I and I think it goes back to the need to try and catch them earlier IND in ways that we're not reaching out now and create the safe spaces that that makes them want to take us up on what's out there that's why I think the community local community organizations are taking taking a considerable role with the assistance with transition reintegration like the local Easter Seals affiliates having them being able to reach out to the local to the veterans that are returning to their area to their city to the to their county and then having the childcare how does that work are they specifically reaching out to different individuals how does that work what we're doing actually is setting up through Dixon Center is working with what we call rally points a single point of contact within various communities where veterans can go to for resources and they always have that fallback point because I know rally point is a big big army term to always have a place to come back to whether you you can be provided that that education in the assistance the the employment and assistance or the healthcare assistance so if there's always there's never a wrong door approach I think that it could be almost an overwhelming amount of information out there so if you're a female veteran you're coming back you're having problems or issues you type in what do you type in the Google it is a very beautifully overwhelming system because there are so many resources out there but overwhelming is the word and if those of us kind of inside the veterans support space can't keep track of what's out there then how is the struggling veterans supposed to navigate that space and so in any given community it's possibly a different answer but there are all kinds of veteran service officers they're called all over whether it's a state veteran's service officer the American Legion or the VFW there are navigators out there but connecting the veterans to those navigators is really very difficult it's why surely things will spread by word of mouth and we can spread word on best practices and those inside the community can know those and try and spread the word but what we really need to do is create what Kim mentioned the no wrong door approach and there are some really interesting efforts out underway out there one of the things I've been really humbled by in my work in sort of researching military sexual trauma is and this was entirely non related to my actual research questions but women who have served many of them overcame their personal struggles and their traumas by reaching out in helping other women and I mean right here on this panel we have two women who have served who are now serving others in this capacity particularly through offering this type of help and I think that's absolutely unbelievable and tremendous especially when some of these women in their military service were very isolated they maybe didn't even work with other women but they turn around and they make their service and service to women as civilians after their military life and it's really really awesome transitioning to the civilian life was very eye-opening and very disturbing because I didn't have those rules and regulations that I had to follow like the military life it was very standard and very direct and the civilian life is definitely not like that at all I was not prepared to come back to the civilian world after I left the military it was difficult because you missed the relationships that you have transitioning out of the service you missed that you missed the people you don't miss so much of the politics or the inspections or prepping for this or the deployments or making sure we're ready to go wherever it is that we're ready to go the training you don't miss but you miss the relationships I was trying to let everybody know you know that I knew that was a veteran what you're entitled to because a lot of times we just get out and don't think think that's it and it's not the successful transition and reintegration is is crucial for all veterans and we see that as as far as at Dixon Center the the wraparound approach of education meaningful employment access to health care which will help with a lot of these issues and is the big thing I think is to remember is you know we're we're veterans as someone smart once told me or veterans we're not victims we don't need pity we need recognition of our potential and we are not asking for a handout but sometimes we may need a hand up thank you all very much we appreciate it I appreciate you being here well as we've here today the number of women serving in the United States military continues to rise and their roles certainly evolving the increased presence of women also means greater conversation no longer around whether women can do a specific task but instead on the challenges and the benefits that arise from women's greater participation within the military at all levels I would like to thank our panelists to Erica Boren Rebecca Hannigan and Kimberly Mitchell for joining me in this very important discussion and conversation and for also sharing their knowledge and their experience so on behalf of Pritzker military library I'm Stacey Baca thanks so much for watching this program was made possible by Easter Seals Inc with additional support from the Chicago Foundation for women in partnership with the Pritzker military library

Glenn Chapman

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