The State Worker

California, federal officials step up efforts to help women veterans

Juliene Crisostomo, an Air Force an Air Force humvee gunner in Iraq and a Department of Veterans Affairs analyst, looks over a veterans website with her mother Irma Crisostomo, who also served in the military as an Army specialist 4, at the California Department of Veterans Affairs offices in Sacramento on Thursday.
Juliene Crisostomo, an Air Force an Air Force humvee gunner in Iraq and a Department of Veterans Affairs analyst, looks over a veterans website with her mother Irma Crisostomo, who also served in the military as an Army specialist 4, at the California Department of Veterans Affairs offices in Sacramento on Thursday.

Six years of active duty. Fifteen months in Iraq. Military police officer. Aircraft machine gunner. Six years in the California National Guard until last summer. Mom and dad both veterans.

Even with that military résumé and pedigree, Juliene Crisostomo, 32, didn’t think of herself as a veteran.

That changed two years ago when her supervisor at the California Department of Veterans Affairs called her into a private meeting and closed the office door.

“She said, ‘The women veterans division is short staffed,’” Crisostomo recalled. “‘You’re a female veteran. You can speak to the issues like nobody else can.’”

Two questions crossed Crisostomo’s mind.

“First I thought, ‘We have a women division?’” she said. “Then I thought, ‘I’m a veteran?’ I had to let that roll around in my head for a while.”

Unlike their male counterparts, women often don’t view themselves as veterans, experts say. They don’t realize they may qualify for government-sponsored psychological, medical and other benefits intended to ease their transition back to the civilian world.

As the military draws down some 80,000 troops in Afghanistan, about 10 percent of them will be women who will exchange their foreign assignment for a domestic struggle to reconnect with civilian society, family and friends.

In many ways, coming back from service is tougher for female veterans than their male counterparts, according to a federal profile of women who have served. They’re more likely than men to be uninsured, unemployed and divorced, and to suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder – many times the result of sexual harassment or sexual assault.

Federal and state officials, worried that many women exiting the military aren’t receiving the services and benefits they’re due, say they are redoubling efforts to reach them.

Women have served U.S. military efforts since the Revolutionary War, mostly in support services such as laundry, nursing and cooking. A few saw combat early in the nation’s history, but they had to disguise themselves as men. After more than 400,000 women served the WWII effort at home and abroad, Congress passed a law in 1948 granting females permanent military status with entitlement to veterans benefits.

Last year the military ended the ban on women in combat, and now they make up 15 percent of all active-duty military, according to federal figures, and that percentage is expected to steadily grow.

Women are flocking to the service, said Lindsey Sin, deputy secretary for the women division of the state Department of Veterans Affairs, because of the military’s indiscriminate like-pay for like-work policies, opportunities to travel, gain job skills and an education.

Meanwhile, females constitute about 10 percent of the U.S. veteran population. More than 184,000 of them reside in California, accounting for 11 percent of the state’s veterans. The federal government figures they’ll constitute 15 percent of veterans in California by 2034.

Although the makeup of the military is gradually changing, it remains a male-dominated culture. Many women who finish their service don’t realize they’re veterans.

“I always thought of veterans as being like my dad,” said Crisostomo, whose mother also served in South Korea. “Army Ranger, with 20 years of service. You know, the bad-ass stereotype with the hat that says what war they were in ... That’s not me.”

Part of the difficulty women confront with identifying themselves as veterans starts while they’re still in the service, Sin said. Military code requires that women downplay their femininity from how they can wear their hair, to their uniforms, to makeup and nail-polish color. Earrings must be approved.

“A lot of that is to teach discipline and order,” said Sin, who achieved the rank of petty officer first class during eight years in the Navy. “It’s about how you behave in a team environment.”

But that code can drift into a darker zone that sanctions sexism and, in some instances, sexual assault.

“You get around a bunch of guys and you laugh off inappropriate jokes, maybe even participate in them,” Sin said. “I know I did. It was stuff I didn’t consider sexist at the time, but it was completely sexist.”

Crisostomo recalled that some men in her unit put women into one of two categories: those considered sexually cold or those willing to advance their careers through sexual favors.

When any woman joined the unit, Crisostomo said, the new arrival was immediately labeled. Men didn’t get the same treatment.

“I’d say in my head, ‘Yeah, she probably is,’” Crisostomo said. “Looking back, I’m ashamed.”

A recent survey of women veterans in California found that 73 percent experienced sexual harassment in the military and 40 percent of those surveyed said they were sexually assaulted while in the service.

Of those, two-thirds didn’t report their assault and nearly three-quarters, 73 percent, didn’t seek medical treatment.

Other reports indicate that sexual-assault and rape victims in the military are more traumatized than victims in civilian society. There’s a heightened sense of betrayal that a comrade would attack them and a sense of helplessness that they were violated inside a system that places law, order and security at a premium.

A 2012 federal study shows that sexual trauma in the military – which has been expansively defined to include everything from pressure to have unwanted relations to rape – is more likely to lead to post-traumatic stress disorder in women than any other event, including combat exposure.

Gina Maiocco, an Air Force veteran and associate professor at West Virginia University who studies challenges female veterans face reintegrating with civilian society, said sexual assault stories were common in interviews she conducted for a soon-to-be-published study.

“One woman told me that when she got off the plane in a war zone, one of the guys gave her a whistle,” she said. “The woman asked, ‘Why don’t you give me a gun?’ The guy told her, ‘You have a higher chance of getting raped than shot at.’”

Finances and unemployment add more layers of emotional stress many women veterans confront. While unemployment among their ranks nationally is 6.9 percent, according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers, the picture in California is more grim.

Sixteen percent of women who left military service told the the California Research Bureau this year that they were unemployed. Women veterans’ average income in California is $34,697 and lags the average yearly income of their male counterparts by nearly $8,600.

“It’s tough,” said Kathy Taylor-Miller, an Army veteran who works part time as a teacher’s aide. “We just want to better ourselves and take care of our families. But where’s the work? I just don’t see it.”

Taylor-Miller began attending San Jose State University this fall, aiming for a master’s degree in business administration, with financial help from the VA that she discovered on her own. She wishes the government gave the same effort to inform veterans as it dedicates to recruiting civilians for service.

“The outreach, especially for women, it just isn’t there,” she said.

Maiocco said she thinks the VA is trying to change.

The administration used to build facilities that catered to single men. Newer facilities have separate wings for women and children, she said. The VA also has a women’s health care advisory committee that reports to VA Secretary Robert McDonald. It also set up a hotline for women veterans, (855) 829-6636.

Women’s health clinics separate from VA hospitals are sprouting around the country, including one that opened last year at the former Mather Air Force Base. Officials say the facility was sorely needed, since the number of women using VA medical and mental health services is growing by nearly 9 percent annually.

“As more women veterans use the system, you’ll see more change,” Maiocco said.

In California, the state Veterans Affairs Department has published an extensive “tool kit” with information and tips for employers, advocates and government agencies that interact with women who have served in the military. Earlier this year it debuted myCalVet, which allows men and women veterans to build an online profile based on their specific needs. The tool then directs users to health care, education, housing and other services closest to them.

The department also is building a roster of women who served. The list has grown from 200 to more than 3,000 in the last couple of years. Officials use it to send out a newsletter and to promote events.

“I think there’s a growing awareness about women veterans,” said Crisostomo.

But would she support her daughter if she wanted to join?

“Hell yes, I would,” she said. “We need more brave, independent women. We can’t change things unless we flood the gates. And despite the problems, it’s a great experience.”

Call Jon Ortiz, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1043.