Transitioning out of military service creates enough stress, but women seem to face additional obstacles, says Beverly VanTull, program manager of the Virginia Women Veterans Program for the state’s Department of Veterans Services.
VanTull said that since Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam authorized the department to build an initiative around the needs of women veterans, interest has grown.
“Women veterans are hidden in plain sight,” said VanTull, noting that the U.S. Department of Labor data show that for every 10 male veterans, there is just one woman veteran.
“It’s just another day at work for women; it seems like men connect readily with service,” she added. “There’s a lot more women who impose stipulations on themselves to consider the significance and depth of their service, perhaps telling themselves that they didn’t deploy, or if they did deploy, that they didn’t see any combat.”
Additionally, VanTull said a women veteran has to push back on myths and stereotypes of both being a woman and being a veteran. “It’s like you have to prove your skill-set in a male-dominated industry.”
That sentiment is echoed by Shalanda Raynor, a master gunnery sergeant who retired from the Marine Corps after 23 years and now owns a business.
Raynor, last stationed at Quantico, said that early in her military career, she went to physical training and was the only woman in the group, so she had decided she couldn’t be the first one to tap out or say she was tired. During the workout, she vomited three times and passed out once. At the emergency room, a nurse explained that her body was trying to say it was done.
“When I share this story with other female veterans, it resonates with them, because in a male-dominated gun club, there’s just so much that is unspoken that is put on females, such as being considered weak,” Raynor said. “I always felt I had to jump higher, run faster and do more, just to be considered equal.”
She added that from the beginning of her service she had to figure out to combat those stereotypes.
“It’s really stressful,” Raynor said, “because on top of the stress all of us go through when serving, I had the added stress of my gender alone; I am considered ‘less than.’”
Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, visiting veteran businesses at the AAFES Veterans Business Expo at Fort Belvoir Exchange on May 1, said women servicemembers and veterans have always had a steeper climb.
“Particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, women were not considered to be ‘on the front lines’ as those kinds of conflicts have no ‘front line.’ We made sure they got full benefits. We also saw repeatedly that the Veterans Administration didn’t put enough attention on women,” Warner said.
VanTull said the 2021 Virginia Women Veterans Summit, to be held virtually June 23 and 24, will address the obstacles head-on and provide networking with hundreds of successful women vets. Over 200 participants are already registered.
“Women vets are on one side of the bridge, transitioning out or moving to a new career, and we move them on to that path of success,” she added. “We help with entrepreneurship and assist her in getting a better job or help her grow in her career.”
Warner, meanwhile, said that continued progress will require legislative vigilance on the state and federal levels.
“We have seen the Veterans Administration up their services, but there’s more to be done, both for women veterans and for active-duty spouses, who have unemployment rates exacerbated by the pandemic,” he added. “There’s no way we’re going to say it’s ever fixed; it’s going to need constant attention.”