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Women of Color and the Military - Vets Tell Their Stories

By August 4, 2008

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Women enlist in the US military for the same reasons men do - a sense of patriotism, a desire for adventure, a way to cover the costs of a college education, a need to earn money and ensure a stable income. But even as they serve their country, their gender puts them at greater risk of sexual assault and rape. And because they often live and work side by side with the perpetrators, women report these crimes far less because of fear of reprisal.

These challenges are magnified for women of color in the military. Only after they leave are they comfortable enough to frankly talk about their experiences and educate other women about the aspects of service that the recruitment brochures and commercials never mention. Many women soldiers are also single parents, and face unique challenges during their tours of duty and after they return home to their children.

In her article "Women Vets of Color Speak Out" for New America Media, Michelle Chen talks to a number of these women and reports:

...[T]he Army’s veneer of uniformity masks deep fault lines of culture, class and sexuality. ....[T]hroughout the growing ranks of military women of color...they may quickly stumble on a landscape of familiar impediments where the rules of race and gender still dictate who fights, who wins and who suffers.

There are about 200,000 active-duty military women today, some 14 percent of the total force, according to federal data. About half of them are women of color. Women of color also now make up around a third of former service members. Of a little more than 1.7 million women veterans nationwide, about 19 percent are Black and 7 percent are Latina. Asian American, Pacific Islander, American Indian and mixed-race women each comprise up to 2 percent or less. Proportionally, people of color comprise a greater share of female veterans than of male veterans.

Women of color, like others, are drawn into the armed forces by both needs and ideals....But the soldier’s path leads many women of color back to where they started—to the turbulence and entrenched discrimination besetting their home communities. And for some, the journey veers unexpectedly toward a new political consciousness.

A handful of those politically-conscious women vets have formed a group designed to help women in the military:
[T]he Service Women’s Action Network (also known as SWAN), an organizing project focused on active-duty and veteran women....SWAN aims to raise awareness about military issues, particularly among young women of color. Partnering with the Women of Color Resource Center, a California-based grassroots group, SWAN has developed educational programs that highlight personal stories of military women’s struggles with discrimination, psychological trauma or benefits that fell short of what was promised.
Michelle Chen includes the stories of Asian American, Latina, and black women, and their moving accounts of what happened to them - both during and after service to our country -are heartbreaking, especially those of single mothers who resume their roles as the primary caregivers. As one woman who established an organization promoting social justice for black female vets says, "“Women are coming back from Iraq without limbs. How do I hold the child that I left when I don’t have arms?”


August 5, 2008 at 5:03 pm
(1) linda says:

I am an Air Force Vet 72-76. I find the stories I am reading appalling – what do our legislators have to say about these things. What can we women Vets do?

December 16, 2009 at 6:36 pm
(2) roderick nelson says:

America, do not care about their Veterans, just look at the praise! the baseball and football and basketball players get! as a vietman veteran it make me sick!America only care when war breakout!!!!

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