America’s Largest Provider of Veterans Services Offers Insight on Returning Women Veterans

Volunteers of America hosts panel discussion on rising numbers of women veterans in need in America

ALEXANDRIA, Va., April 2014— War has reached a new level of impact on America’s returning veterans, according to Jonathan Sherin, M.D., PhD, executive vice president, military communities and chief medical officer for Volunteers of America. Sherin joined Volunteers of America three years ago after working with veterans at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for more than 15 years. “When troops were returned to combat for multiple tours of duty, no one realized the traumatic impact it would have on the individuals serving,” explained Sherin. “And now we find ourselves faced with thousands returning with both visible injuries and the invisible wounds of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.” Sherin also described the large and growing wave of homeless veterans who have depended on friends or family for an interim and are now finding themselves on the streets.

“Women veterans are no exception to these challenges,” Sherin added. “In fact, many of them face greater pressures because they have children to deal with, and their war issues become insurmountable. Women also are less likely to seek help.”

Volunteers of America, the largest provider of veterans services in the U.S., has seen more women veterans enter its programs in recent months, especially those returning from current conflicts where they have seen and supported combat. Today, approximately 10 percent of the more than 10,000 veterans served by Volunteers of America annually are women … up from almost none just a few years ago. “We’ve realized that treating women veterans is very different from treating their male counterparts. Women are actually tougher,” said Barbara Banaszynski, senior vice president of program operations at Volunteers of America, who oversees veteran programs and housing. While traditional assistance for homeless male veterans focuses on shelters and transitional housing, women often require apartments that accommodate children, or feel unsafe in communal shelters where men also live. They are also more likely to feel a stigma from being homeless and less likely to trust the established veterans’ assistance system, prolonging the time it takes them to seek help. Recently, The Home Depot Foundation stepped in with more than $7 million in funding for Volunteers of America programs (of $80 million specifically allocated to help veterans) and the organizations are working together to build housing across the U.S. for homeless veterans, including housing specifically allocated to women veterans.

Recent reports from the VA state that more than 25 percent of women in recent conflicts have been victims of sexual assault; that’s in addition to the added stress, PTSD and TBI. “Yet women are expected to return home and be strong in their roles as caregivers,” Banaszynski adds. She also points out that suicide rates for women veterans are climbing daily.

On Tuesday, May 13, Volunteers of America will convene a panel discussion at the National Press Club that will further discuss these and other issues facing women veterans. After the Uniform 2014: Responding to America’s Women Warriors will look at the challenges facing many of America’s women veterans and the barriers that many struggle to overcome in building strong civilian lives. Moderated by Gwen Ifill, managing editor of “PBS News Hour” and moderator and managing editor of “Washington Week,” the panel will include Heather Pritchard, senior manager, national partnerships, The Home Depot Foundation (The Foundation has committed more than $80 million to help returning veterans); Associated Press correspondent Kimberly Dozier, who spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan covering both conflicts and was critically injured by a roadside bomb; Susan McCutcheon, PhD, national mental health director of family services, women’s mental health and military sexual trauma, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; and Jonathan Sherin, M.D., PhD who works extensively with returning vets and is an expert in PTSD, TBI and other afflictions. Elisa Basnight, director of the Department of Veterans Affairs and Center for Women Veterans, and a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy-West Point and U.S. Army veteran, will make opening remarks before the panel begins.

“Discussions such as this one are critical in raising the visibility of the challenges facing women veterans,” Sherin said. “It will take many organizations and many individuals working together to meet the needs of women veterans and ensure that what could become a societal crisis doesn’t happen. As more and more women veterans find themselves at crisis levels in the coming years, it will be incumbent on us to be there for them.”

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