Lift Every Voice: Listen to Women Veterans

During last week’s Veteran’s Day inspired concerts and tributes to veterans, a Hill-gathering of Disruptive Women (and our man of the month, Rep. Tim Walz, (MN-OI) spoke truth with power. Gathered to discuss challenges faced by women veterans, the group included veterans, members of Congress and their spouses, congressional staff, state leaders, and filmmakers. The group had had enough of platitudes and promises. We were ready for disruption, and Rep. Walz delivered just that, saying he was done with “incremental change” (Washington’s latest, favorite buzz-word) and prepared to lead “seismic change.”

Walz speaks from a place of experience, knowledge, and passion: He is a retired soldier, and the highest ranking enlisted man to serve in Congress. During a 24-year stint in the Army National Guard, including a tour of duty in Operation Enduring Freedom, he also taught high school. The latter tour provided him some insight into chaos and disruption. In the 113th Congress, he will serve in leadership roles that include the National Guard and Reserves Caucus, and the Congressional Veterans Jobs.

In his remarks, Walz noted that “it doesn’t take much to offer health care that people can’t access.” He added that although the VA has made some progress since the days when “the best thing the VA could say for what it had done for women was that the exam tables no longer face the door.” Later, he added that the VA system—staffed by dedicated people—still has far to go to really offer care for all, noting that, “it is much easier to put up a yellow ribbon than it is to step up care.”

As recent Veterans Health Administration scandals have revealed, its challenges go beyond exam room layout – and problems reflect deeper challenges within the system in particular and American culture in general.

The day’s two other panelists included Emmy award-winning filmmaker Patty Lee Stotter, whose award-winning documentary, Service: When Women Come Marching Home, uses women’s voices to tell their story. Director of Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs, Lourdes E. (Alfie) Alvarado-Ramos, detailed her state’s actions to address specific problems.

Stotter has crafted films to give women veterans a place to speak. Her presentation included quotes from several women veterans, and included poignant thoughts, such as these:

“Tell them how I had to file a congressional inquiry two years after my daughter was born because the VA was NOT paying my prenatal care bills, which impacted my credit score…Tell them that the stress of being billed throughout my pregnancy with no advocacy from the VA left me crippled with PTSD and physical pain.””

“Tell them I was told that I should leave my boots on while having a trans-vaginal ultrasound because the stirrups were so filthy.”

“Today, I am fighting for my life. I have an extreme case of PTSD that has rendered me housebound. I have been in the disability claims process for nearly 4 years…”

 “I was raped in Iraq and when I went to report it I was told I was lying and probably wanted it. I was denied the right to get medical help.”
Alvarado-Ramos, a veteran herself, offered models from the other Washington that reflected possibilities for change and improvement. Washington State, she said, has, 70,000 women veterans, and, by 2040, projections are that there will be a much higher percentage of women veterans, as well as on active duty, as the numbers of men decline. She listed a dozen programs underway, most brand-new and inspired by her own service. These include: establishment of a women’s veterans committee; development of a veterans registry to better tracking and inform veterans; hiring more women service officers to help veterans of claims; and creation of a statewide information campaign to educate the the public and raise awareness of veterans’ ongoing struggles.

All of these programs represent a step toward addressing shameful situations that our veterans encounter – including homelessness, food insecurity, incarceration, mental health problems, sexual assault and economic hard times.

DW on the Hill

In a follow-up interview with Disruptive Women, Stotter talked about gender stereotyping and discrimination, and its toll on women veterans. I told her about the work of MacArthur genius Ai-jen Poo to organize domestic workers in New York City: When Ai-jen talks about women work—particularly paid housekeeping and babysitting–she notes that  says simply do not value or compensate the people who do the work that allows the rest of us to do our work

“Exactly!” Patty said. “We don’t even value the work that allows the rest of us to be free.” She continued, “I am furious that hard-working people who are soldiers get so little. Going to war, we see the worst of what the universe has to offer.  In our response to women veterans, I fear that we are losing our soul.”

It was the first time in a decade of attending DC panel discussions that I went home and spent three hours writing a poem about what I had heard.  Earlier in the week I’d written an essay about Bruce Springsteen’s performance at The Concert for Valor, and my appalling realization that our veterans must rely on the national equivalent of bake sales to resume civilian life.

Musician Bruce Springsteen performs during The Concert for Valor on the National Mall on Veterans' Day in Washington

I am proud to join this movement to advocate for women veterans. Not a veteran myself, I cannot imagine what women veterans have endured. But as a midlife woman, I know too well what it means to have a voice that is silenced. A voice that gets shouted down or shamed or discounted. A voice that gets shoved against the wall with a knife. A voice that does not dominate the room.

As a Disruptive Woman, I know what it means to reclaim your voice, to use it for good, to launch seismic change that echoes for many, and that helps people build new and safer shelters within their own minds, bodies, and lives.

Each and every Disruptive Woman should join our sisters in this battle. We can all sing in this chorus. Perhaps not from the same page or even the same score, but in a song that raises our voices and lifts them for those who, just now, cannot do it for themselves.

key words: Disruptive Women in Health Care, Tim Walz, women veterans, military sexual trauma, rape, wounded warriors, Ai-jen Poo, Bruce Springsteen, Concert for Valor

 

This post originally ran on Disruptive Women in Health Care on Tuesday, November 18, 2014.

Still Waiting on a Dream: Veterans are Veterans All Year Long

As a native Washingtonian and lifelong fan of Bruce Springsteen, I was disappointed in the way the irony of his all-acoustic set flew over the heads of many who sat in or tuned in for Tuesday night’s HBO broadcast, Concert for Valor. In the early 80s, Ronald Reagan and his crowd tried to appropriate Born in the USA as an anthem for a campaign that also promised us that it was “morning again in America.

Musician Bruce Springsteen performs during The Concert for Valor on the National Mall on Veterans' Day in Washington

Back then, Springsteen and his fans reacted quickly to put a stop to such use. The song was anything but Springsteen’s rendition of America the Beautiful.  When Springsteen sings, “Born down in a dead man’s town/the first kick I took was when I hit the ground,” he is not telling the story of purple mountains’ majesty.

The song, nearly 40 years on, rings true today, even in the lines where the “VA man” retorts, “son, don’t you understand?”

Apparently not, judging from the Twitter feeds that paid homage to Springsteen and his performance Tuesday. In today’s America, we don’t shame our veterans as we did after the Vietnam war, but we surely, as a nation, ignore what becomes of (mostly) young people sent to repeated and seemingly endless rounds of battle.

To be sure we admire their service, their bravery, and their sacrifice. When we see video montages of happy soldiers and Marines reunited with their families, we shed are grateful tears. For 95 percent of us, the wars in far-away places are far from our lives and our experiences.

We expressed the requisite outrage over recent VA scandals, and admired the struggles of wounded warriors who, like the amazing Master Sergeant Cedric King, find the will to flourish within and despite their maimed bodies. For the most part, though, we don’t see that too many of our veterans come home with a “fire still raging within”, and a war that plays out for years in brains injured by bomb blasts.  We do not march in noisy crowds demanding that more of our tax dollars be directed to veterans and their families. Instead, we elect Republicans who are now beating the drums of war against ISIS.

Meanwhile, the veterans we laud and thank are really just symbols of the people we ignore and avoid. Record numbers of young veterans will now live with chronic pain syndromes for the rest of their lives. At the same time, we support policies that are barriers to accessing pain relief treatments, both traditional and complementary.

We give a handful of folding chairs to veterans on the Mall and seats in our sports venues, while we have no shelter for the thousands of veterans who are now homeless. And while we go on holding our national versions of bake sales for our national defense, we withhold funds that would provide meaningful training and education to veterans trying to rebuild their lives and find their purpose.

Bruce Springsteen, a man who recently pointed to Flannery O’Connor’s writing as having made him the man he is, knows irony.  When he opened with Promised Land as a prayer for active-duty military and veterans, Springsteen knew just what he was doing. For those lost to injury, poverty, addiction, pain, and suicide, we have yet to build a promised land.

“Mr. I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man/and I believe in the promised land,” the Boss sings. So do I—and so do the men and women who volunteer their lives for the sake of our freedom. To them, freedom is not just another song lyric—but it is often still just a word to those who come home and vanish under our lip service.

 

key words: Bruce Springsteen, Born in the USA, Concert for Valor, veterans, homelessness, pain, addiction