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Mark Brunswick, McClatchy Newspapers, Published November 29 2010

Female veterans say service overlooked by military and civilian worlds

MINNEAPOLIS – Anne Baumtrog remembers the slight well.

She and her husband, Paul, were at a support program in the Twin Cities for returning soldiers, checking out a Veterans of Foreign Wars table. Anne, a staff sergeant in the Minnesota National Guard who had just come back from the first of two tours in Iraq, was in uniform. Her husband was wearing jeans and a T-shirt.

But the VFW officials focused on him, explaining the benefits the group could provide, even offering to mail him more information.

For Anne, who received a combat medic badge in Iraq, the disrespect was jarring. “I can expect that from the average citizen,” she said. “But to have that kind of disrespect from fellow veterans, it was just frustrating and hurtful.”

To this day, the VFW offers come mailed to Paul, not Anne.

Her experience is common. Women who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan tell similar stories: Home loan paperwork from the Department of Veterans Affairs made out in the names of their husbands. VA hospital care where women are such an afterthought that examination rooms face out toward crowded hallways. Insufficient job-training programs. Family-outreach programs blind to the idea that some of the spouses left struggling at home are husbands, not wives.

Nearly 250,000 female soldiers have served in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade. More and more of them are coming home. But the military is often struggling to serve their needs.

In Minnesota, home to more than 20,000 female vets, women who were once in or near the thick of the fight say they feel that the military and the civilian worlds overlook or discount their service. Some feel so marginalized they are reluctant even to seek help for emotional and other problems that arise once they’re back home.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, in a speech earlier this year, acknowledged the problem.

“Time is not on our side. We are late,” he said.

Congress also has taken the small step of authorizing a comprehensive study of the VA’s treatment of women veterans.

‘Easier not to ask’

Becky Danaher has completed the outward transition to civilian life – from U.S. staff sergeant operating a command center in Iraq to buyer at Target.

She was part of missions that cost soldiers their lives, and her time overseas threatened her marriage. Yet the only outward wound from her service is a front tooth lost during training for Iraq. Danaher doesn’t talk much about being in Iraq. It’s not that she minds. It’s that others don’t ask, a fact that she has come to accept.

“It took me a while to understand that people don’t know what to say,” says Danaher, who left Iraq five years ago. “It’s easier not to ask anymore, but it’s something that goes on in my mind constantly. To them, it’s just like someone spent a year in Europe or some other work experience. They don’t think about it being somewhere inside me. But every time a door slams, it sounds like a mortar.”

She was part of a unit that coordinated convoys of food, equipment and troops. Sometimes the trucks would fall prey to explosive devices and the convoys would call in for medical aid and vehicle recovery. It was Danaher’s job to secure vital equipment and figure out how to get people back safe. She went to 20 memorial services for soldiers who didn’t make it.

“You don’t have to know these soldiers personally; you know who they are. It’s like a piece of you is gone,” she says.

That stress fully manifested itself only after she got home.

“I went through a two-week period where my mind and body decompressed. I cried nonstop, and I didn’t know why. Then I figured out I was just letting go.”

She finds herself disconnected from small talk about celebrities and gossip.

“Our time is limited, and I’ve seen that firsthand,” she says. “You don’t know; you have to accept the possibility of death.”

She and her husband, Sean, recognized that their marriage had frayed while she was overseas. The outreach offered by military family support groups was no help.

“There were things like scrapbooking. I can tell you I’m not into scrapbooking,” Sean said. “And in all the e-mails I would get from the family support group, the pronouns were the wrong gender.”

Danaher describes her time in the military as one chapter in her life. Now closed, it is rarely reopened, especially now as the couple expect their first child in late March. She thinks often of the people who were deployed with her, but she put away her medals and ribbons. The most tangible evidence of her service is the cozy south Minneapolis home she shares with Sean. The home was purchased with a VA loan. The paperwork came made out in Sean’s name.

Some of her friends who also served have Iraq war veteran license plates. Not Danaher.

“If we had them, everyone would think that they were my husband’s,” she said.

In combat, unofficially

Sgt. Breena Bieber was part of combat missions. Except, officially she ­wasn’t.

How can a soldier simultaneously be part of a combat unit and not part of that unit?

When the soldier is a woman.

Because of the peculiarities of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, female soldiers have been asked to serve as liaisons with women civilians there in numbers never seen in previous conflicts. Several years ago, in fact, the Marines developed all-female units – dubbed lionesses – to deal directly with Iraqi women. At the same time, the military maintains – at least on paper – its rules against women serving in combat, despite the fact that guerrilla warfare often makes the prohibition meaningless. Pentagon policy prohibits women from being part of branches such as Special Forces, artillery and infantry.

But the cultural demands of today’s battles have resulted in women becoming “attached” to combat units without officially being assigned to them.

Bieber found herself in that situation in Iraq. Bieber, who spent seven years in the Minnesota National Guard, was deployed with a medical unit twice to Iraq. During the last half of her final deployment, she was a medic for a unit operating gun trucks on convoys, patrols and intelligence-gathering operations. When her group pulled over vehicles, it was Bieber’s job to deal with the Iraqi women. She recalls one incident where a woman collapsed while walking in the desert during a pilgrimage in the holy month of Ramadan.

“I ran out with my medic bag. When she woke up, she started crying. She’d never seen Army military people before. I was there to help her, calm her down because she saw a woman’s face,” she said.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have represented a historic change for women in the military. Women have made up a far larger component of the ranks in these wars than any before them and have been subjected to more combat than ever. Some 721 of them have been wounded and 132 killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than in all U.S. conflicts since World War II.

The Pentagon doesn’t track medals by gender, but one study calculates that more than 2,000 women who have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq have been awarded the Bronze Star, another 1,300 have earned the Combat Action Badge, and at least two women have been awarded the Silver Star, the military’s third-highest honor for bravery in combat.

Unequal treatment

Melissa Passeretti has already served two tours in Iraq and carries nerve damage in her neck and back from wearing body armor ill-fitted to the female form.

But she would go back.

Unable to find work since returning home in January from her last deployment and about to divorce, Passeretti sees another stint in the Army as her best option for paying the bills.

A staff sergeant in the Minnesota National Guard, Passeretti came from a military family. Her father was a career Marine who would stop the car on family trips and make the kids stand at attention with their hands over their hearts when the national anthem played on the radio before baseball games.

Respect for obligation and duty has “been bred into me,” Passeretti said. If asked, she’d be ready to be deployed again as early as next year.

“My children have all said, ‘Well, if you need to go again, it’s not so bad because we need things, we want things, and we’re tired of hearing we don’t have the money,’ ” she said.

Passeretti’s story is a familiar one to advocates hoping to improve the re-entry of women veterans into the civilian work force. State employment programs for vets often see women attend a meeting or two and then never come back. A woman veteran between the ages of 18 to 24 is twice as likely to experience unemployment as a non-veteran woman. And women veterans who have served since 1990 have a 20 percent higher unemployment rate than their male counterparts, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Perhaps what frustrates Passeretti most is the lack of recognition. At the veterans hospital, other patients assume that she is the wife of a vet or that her injuries could not have come from the battlefield.

“I’m a combat vet. There are women combat vets in this state,” she said. “People just automatically assume that you’re not because you’re a woman. It’s frustrating.”