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 Veter-ans 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 tables 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 often struggles to serve their needs.
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 female veterans.
The numbers are beginning to reveal the extent of the problem. Women make up roughly 5 percent of the approximately 107,000 veterans nationwide who are homeless each night. "Mistreatment by the VA is enough reason for many traumatized women veterans to fall through the cracks and end up victims of alcohol abuse, unemployment, homelessness and suicide," Anuradha Bhagwati, executive director of the Service Women's Action Network and a former Marine captain, testified at a congressional hearing last year.
Fighting the stereotype
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 all the e-mails I would get from the family support group the pronouns were the wrong gender."
She 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.
Female combat vets
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 female 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 female veteran between the ages of 18 and 24 is twice as likely to experience unemployment as a non-veteran woman. And female 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."