How much has changed in nearly a century and a half. In 1863 the song "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" -- composed in the midst of the Civil War -- reflected a nation's heartfelt desire to see its men come home from war. The lyrics, peppered with "hurrah"s and featuring the sentence, "We'll give him a hearty welcome then," illustrated a hometown's imagined pride in its returning soldiers.
But place the lyrics in the context of today and substitute "Jenny" for "Johnny," and the song is entirely different. Female veterans returning from war are often overlooked or worse, their service to America is frequently misunderstood and belittled.
Men still get the cheers, the thanks from random strangers, and the offer to "buy you a beer" in bars near military bases. But not women veterans.
Former Army Sgt. Kayla Williams describes coming back from Iraq with her comrades only to find the reception differed for men and women. In an in-depth article on female veterans, she told the Associated Press:
...she was surprised by the response she and other women from the 101st Airborne Division received from people in Clarksville, Tenn., near Fort Campbell, Ky.
She said residents just assumed they were girlfriends or wives of military men.
"People didn't come up to us and thank us for our service in the same way. They didn't give us free beers in bars in the same way when we first got back," said Williams, 34, of Ashburn, Va. "Even if you're vaguely aware of it, it still colors how you see yourself in some ways."
It isn't only the lack of a homecoming welcome that's hard for female veterans.
Although women are technically barred from the battle front, those who serve as as military police officers, pilots, drivers and gunners on convoys often see action firsthand and face the same life-and-death situations as men. Recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have deployed 230,000 American servicewomen and at least 120 have died as a result, with another 650 wounded.
Men and women in the armed forces share many of the same traumatic experiences, but the toll is often significantly higher for women when they go back to "normal life":
Female service members have much higher rates of divorce and are more likely to be a single parent. When they do seek help at VA medical centers, they are screening positive at a higher rate for military sexual trauma, meaning they indicated experiencing sexual harassment, assault or rape. Some studies have shown that female veterans are at greater risk for homelessness.
Two women in the Army Reserves found their re-entry into civilian life difficult and their contributions either downplayed or ignored.
Sergeant Rachel McNeill, a 25-year-old from Wisconsin, was a gunner during hostile convoys in Iraq. Yet the reactions back home to her wartime service have deeply affected her outlook:
She described the attitudes as "Oh, you didn't do anything or you were just on base," said McNeill, who suffers from postconcussive headaches, ringing in her ears, and other health problems related to roadside bomb blasts.
When she told the VA staff in Madison, Wisconsin why she suffered from these health problems, she was frustrated that the VA paperwork seemed to demean her role:
"It would say like, 'the patient rode along on convoys,' like I was just a passenger in the back seat," McNeill said.
Staff sergeant Genevieve Chase of Virginia was one of a handful of female veterans who formed the American Women Veterans, a group that combines social opportunities with advocacy for female vets. She was spurred by the sense of loss she experienced when her male buddies in Afghanistan felt uncomfortable socializing with her stateside, afraid of what their wives/girlfriends might think.
In establishing the group for women veterans, Chase is helping to spread the word about the contributions of female service personnel overseas:
"We just want to know that when we come home, America has our back," Chase said. "That's the biggest thing. Women are over there. You want to feel like you're coming home to open arms, rather than to a public that doesn't acknowledge you for what you've just done and what you just sacrificed."
- Number of Homeless Female Veterans is Growing...and Many Have Kids
- Adopt a Deployed Servicewoman Through Ladies of Liberty
- Women of Color and the Military - Vets Tell Their Stories
The AP article: Back from combat, women struggle for acceptance