Unique needs and challenges
Recognizing women veterans
Women veterans have selflessly and courageously served our country. But their contributions have not always been recognized. Thankfully, this is changing. The unique challenges faced by women veterans are now being recognized, and services are now changing to meet their needs. Women veterans are now forming networks so their voices can be heard. Yet, much remains to be done.
Strong and getting stronger
Women veterans are now the fastest growing group of veterans in our country. Over the next decade, the number of women veterans will increase at a rate of about 18,000 per year. In 2020, 10% of all veterans in the United States were women and 17% of Gulf War Era veterans were women. In 2017, 20% of new recruits were women.
Though there have been some improvements in rights and services for women veterans, the battle is not yet won. Many challenges women veterans face have to do with disability, health care, equal access to services, and transitioning to the workforce. In addition to the barriers faced by all women (lower income levels, discrimination, greater caretaking demands, etc.), women veterans also face unique challenges. Woman veterans are:
- More likely to be single parents than their civilian counterparts and to be struggling with the demands of raising children alone while in school.
- More likely to have experienced sexual trauma than civilian women and are more likely to be struggling with the repercussions of this experience.
- Trying to get support services and health care from agencies who are not yet prepared to meet their needs.
- Less likely to find support and connection with other veterans as these networks are often geared toward male veterans.
Hope and hopelessness
Sadly, women veterans are at heightened risk of homelessness and suicide compared with nonveteran women. Does your college have emergency services for veterans who have lost hope? And are these services welcoming and effective given the unique situation of women student veterans? To find out more about sources of free, confidential help for women veterans in crisis, see the “Immediate assistance” listings at the top of this tool’s Deeper Dive.
But there is hope
The growing awareness of the challenges faced by women veterans has given rise to recent improvements in supports and services for women veterans. As the number of women veterans increases, these improvements will continue. These changes are not only about processes and systems, but also about changing cultures. Over the past decade, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has acknowledged the need to change the beliefs and assumptions that have marginalized women who have served. Though this is a continuing journey, programs and services have changed to better serve women veterans.
Women veterans in higher education
Women veterans have, on average, higher levels of education than either male veterans or civilian women. For example, 31% of women veterans have a bachelor’s degree, as compared to 27% of male veterans, 26% of women civilians, and 27% of male civilians. Yet, woman veterans do face unique challenges in higher education. They are more likely to have dependent children while attending college than are nonveteran women students. And, they are in a minority on college campuses. It might be difficult for them to find others on campus who share their experiences and challenges.
Women veterans and disability
The rate of disability among women veterans is similar to that of their male counterparts. Yet, women veterans have different types of disabilities:
- The most common service-connected disabilities for women are post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI), depression, migraines, and back injury.
- Because women veterans tend to be, on average, younger than male veterans or civilian women, they are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness. (Though it’s likely that the real rate of mental illness is the same for different ages, younger people are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental illness.)
- Women veterans’ disabilities tend to be less obvious than are those of male veterans. Hence, women veterans might struggle more with issues around disclosure and accommodations in the workplace.
- Also, women tend to under-utilize veterans’ disability-related services. Research shows that one-in-five women veterans with disabilities have delayed or gone without needed health care during the past year.
- Finally, women veterans are more likely to be working through disability issues while they have childcare responsibilities.
Women veterans and employment
Despite having higher levels of education, GWE II veteran women still face barriers in employment. In 2019, the unemployment rate for GWE II women veterans was 4.7%, as compared with 3.4% for veteran men, 3.5% for nonveteran women, and 3.7% for nonveteran men. In 2020, during the COVID-19 outbreak, the unemployment rate for GWE II women veterans rose to 7.4%, as compared with 7.2% for veteran men, 8.2% for nonveteran women, and 7.8% for nonveteran men.
What about income? During 2019, the median annual income for all women veterans was $37,302, as compared to $45,048 for men veterans, $26,892 for women nonveterans and $40,403 for men nonveterans.
In a nutshell, Gulf War Era II women veterans have had higher rates of unemployment than either male veterans or nonveterans. But during COVID times, the unemployment rates of men and women veterans were similar. When they are working, women veterans are paid less than both veteran and nonveteran men, but more than women nonveterans.
Things are getting better: VA services and benefits for women
Veterans Affairs (VA) regional health care and benefits services have specialists devoted to women veterans. In fact, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has a Center for Women Veterans, with coordinators and program managers devoted to women veterans in every VA Regional Office. Also, check out the veterans’ childcare services listed this tool’s Deeper Dive.
What needs to happen on campus?
Take a look at your campus. What might need to happen to ensure that women student veterans feel welcomed and included at your school? Here are three areas to consider:
- Campus student veterans’ services and programs: To what extent are these efforts geared for women veterans? To what extent do women veterans participate in these campus services and programs? If they tend not to participate, do you know why?
- Networking for women veterans: Can women veterans connect with each other on campus? Are there ways to find other women veteran students—to share ideas, resources and challenges that are unique to their situations?
- Supports for students who are parents: Do you offer childcare options or referrals? Sadly, many women veterans have dropped out of college because of childcare challenges. What resources or ideas can you offer them?
- Student health services: Are campus healthcare providers capable of dealing with longer term issues related to PTSI, traumatic brain injury and military sexual trauma? Finally, are there networks and support systems for nontraditional aged students? Do veteran women participate in these networks? If not, do you know why?
What needs to happen in your counseling practice?
Take a look at your counseling practice. Women student veterans may have a complex and broad array of challenges as they attend college and transition to careers. Your counseling practice needs to be wide-ranging, agile, and integrated. It will need to encompass physical health, family issues, economic situations, work-life balance, and mental health. Further, you will need to understand the resources available to veteran women—and stay updated as these resources are changing rapidly.
Be prepared to listen. Each woman veteran has her own set of strengths and challenges. Start with her strengths and aspirations. What does she dream about doing? What work did she find most interesting while serving? Then support her in managing challenges. What does she worry most about? What challenges keep her awake at night?
Seeking support from others
Other women veterans are a great source of support, information, ideas, and comfort. Some traditional support veterans’ organizations have not felt welcoming to women veterans. But things are changing quickly as the number of women veterans increases. For more about sources of support for women veterans, go to this tool’s Deeper Dive.
 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention. (2018). Facts about suicide rates among women veterans: June 2018 (PDF).
 Nanda, N., Sandeep, S., Ampaabeng, S., Techapaisarnjaroenkij, P., Patterson, L., & Garasky, S. (2016). Women veteran economic and employment characteristics (PDF). IMPAQ International.
 Veterans Education Project (VEP). (2021, March 8). Post 9/11 women veterans: A profile in higher education.