These are the words of an Oregon woman veteran, sharing her story during a listening session with me in the spring of 2016.
“Over the years, I thought that if I just didn’t think about it, I could make it go away and I would be OK,” she continued. “And mostly that’s worked, until just recently. Something happened that triggered me, and now it has all come rushing back. I don’t know what to do with this. I know I can file a claim, but I’m just so afraid to have to tell my story over and over and have it be denied because no one believes me, again.”
Women veterans are too often invisible, overlooked, without a voice. We are mostly unseen . . . by everyone. Research and data specific to women veterans, although it is growing, is scarce. Services relevant to our issues, barriers, challenges and needs are absorbed into the general term of “veteran,” much to our detriment.
Take for example, the topic of suicide. Of all the things that you’ve read or heard, how many of you know that female veteran suicide has grown by 40 percent in the past decade, and that the suicide risk for women veterans 18 to 29 is twelve times the risk of non-veteran women? You may not have heard that because women veterans are often left out of conversations about PTSD, suicide and homelessness. This is a problem that leaves services lacking.
How we improve this is two-fold. First, we must seek the input of women veterans and use their feedback in developing services and programs. Second, we need to talk to service providers — not just within the Department of Veterans Affairs, but in the non-VA population.
Last year, the Oregon Legislature took a pioneering step by passing HB 3479 to create the position of Oregon Women Veterans Coordinator here at ODVA. The bill charges the Oregon Women Veterans Coordinator with conducting outreach, advocacy, research, data, and policy. As I examined these mandates and the status of women veterans in Oregon, I understood that the first two were important in defining and informing the last three.
In working with leaders at ODVA to determine what that would look like, I recommended that outreach and advocacy become the priority. The outreach piece focuses on veterans and everyone else (community partners, elected officials, and anyone who might cross paths with a woman veteran). The advocacy piece is strictly about women veterans — advocating for them and on their behalf.
Since March, I have been traveling around Oregon meeting with women veterans like the one you heard from above, listening to the stories of their military and veteran experiences. I ask them to meet me — a complete stranger (and a government employee no less!) — in a room with other women veterans and trust that I will honor them through the simple act of listening . . . and they come.
The listening sessions are quite literally just that: I sit and listen, and if a woman seeks my intervention or needs an advocate and she asks for my help, we begin that process after the listening session. If a woman veteran wants to talk to me, to share her experiences, but doesn’t want to attend a listening session, we arrange a one-on-one meeting.
These sessions are times for women veterans to share their voices without interruption, judgement, solution-building, or excuse-making. The sessions are confidential, and the information remains completely anonymous. What I learn from these women will be compiled into a report that will be delivered to the Oregon Legislature and the VA. We, ODVA, will use the information to make recommendations and develop policy that is inclusive of women, that bridges the gaps and meets the challenges.
Beyond simply policy, though, is action. One way we have begun the process of using my findings is to develop regional educational summits for community partners, non-profit and public agencies, and elected officials to help them understand the needs of women veterans and how they can participate in improving services to women veterans where they live.
It is a great undertaking, this goal of talking to 28,000 women veterans in Oregon, but one I look forward to every day. It is a great honor to have women veterans entrust me with their stories, so to all of you — thank you. I see you.
Know that my greatest hope is that I can turn your experience — your story — into something that matters for the women veterans of Oregon.