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Military Women - Facts About Military Women and Women Veterans in the U.S.

Roles of Military Women Have Increased over Time as Has Post-War Trauma

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Military Women - Facts About Military Women and Women Veterans in the U.S.

Female soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas on November 10, 2009

© Joe Raedle/Getty Images
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, as of October 2009 the number of women veterans living in the United States and Puerto Rico numbered 1,824,198. Out of a total veteran population of approximately 23 million, 7.9% are military women.

World War II

The Library of Congress Veterans History Project reports that World War II was the first conflict in which American women appeared in uniform in all branches of the armed forces. Many were ordinary women who, driven by a desire to serve their country, led the way for other military women.

Miriam Cohen was one of those women. In 1946, at age 35 Cohen enlisted as a Marine - one of the first group of women to do so. She served during World War II and later went on to become the oldest living female Marine until her death on Veteran's Day 2009 at age 101.

In all, almost 400,000 women served in the United States and Europe, North Africa, and Asia during World War II through the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Marines, and civilian relief organizations. Female service members were involved in the Women's Army Corps (WAC); the female pilots of WAFS (Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron); the Women's Air Service Pilots (WASPs); SPARS, the women's auxiliary unit of the Coast Guard; the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), a unit of the US Naval Reserve; and the Marines, among other groups.

Vietnam War

Following World War II -- with the exception of nurses in the Korean War -- women did not serve in a combat theater until the Vietnam War. According to the Pentagon, 1,234 military women served in Vietnam; include nurses and that number rises to 7,500. (A comprehensive history of women serving in the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and Army Medical Specialist Corps is available at Vietnam Women Veterans website.)

Persian Gulf War

At the time of the Persian Gulf War, Operations Desert Shield and Storm (1990-1991) involved more women in the military than any other conflict in the history of the U.S. Over 40,000 women were deployed; 15 were killed and two were captured and held by Iraqi forces. Almost every military unit included U.S. servicewomen, and old restrictions that had banned servicewomen from combat aircraft and vessels were later lifted as women proved themselves capable.

Iraq War and Afghanistan

In 2008, according to the Department of Defense, women made up 11% of the military force in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past six years; CNN estimated it at 180,000 women in the war zone -- more than four times the number of women who served in the Persian Gulf War.

Unlike previous conflicts, this time women are serving in combat support roles and are experiencing violence firsthand. Rape, assault, and sexual harassment by superiors and other service men also compound the stress faced by women in the military.

Women veterans returning home are experiencing not only post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) but a mental health issue much more prevalent among women due to gender; of the 60,000 veterans diagnosed by the Veterans Administration as having PTSD, 22% of the women suffer from "military sexual trauma" (involving either sexual assault or harassment.) Many women never report the trauma to superiors for fear of retribution, especially when the assailant is in the same unit. In rebuilding their lives after military service, some women veterans are finding re-entry difficult and their wartime service misunderstood. A growing number are ending up homeless, many of them with children. Facilities and programs for veterans, typically geared to meet men's needs, often overlook the unique challenges women face. As women veterans reach out to VA hospitals and agencies for care and support, VA officials estimate that the number of military women utilizing the VA will double in the next five years. To meet the increasing needs of women veterans for gender-specific care (e.g. military sexual trauma), legislators are introducing bills such as the Women Veterans Health Improvement Act of 2008 that will improve the types and range of health care available to former military women.

Sources:

Clinton, Sgt. Randall A. "Oldest female Marine laid to rest in New York ." Division of Public Affairs, U.S. Marine Corps website. 17 November 2009.

"Collection Highlights—Focus on World War II." Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, Inc. Retrieved 15 December 2009.

Kaye, Randi and Ismael Estrada. "Female veterans report more sexual, mental trauma." CNN.com. 19 March 2008.

"Senators Introduce Legislation to Improve Care for Women Veterans." Website of U.S. Senator Patty Murray. 2 April 2008.

"Persian Gulf War." Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, Inc. Retrieved 15 December 2009.

"Veterans History Project Celebrates Women's History Month with Special Web Feature." New & Events, Veterans History Project, Library of Congress. Retrieved 15 December 2009.

"History." Vietnam Women Veterans. Retrieved 14 December 2009.

"Women Veterans of World War II." Sunshine for Women. November 1995

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