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Transitioning From Military To Civilian Life Can Be Especially Difficult For Female Veterans


The number of female veterans has been growing rapidly, and leaving the military carries its own challenges for women. Mental health experts have been focusing more on their transition to the civilian world. Yesterday we heard how wrong things can go if that leap to civilian life goes badly. Today, Jay Price of member station WUNC reports on efforts to help it go right.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: How was your week? You got here. You got here in time like I did.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: On time, on time (laughter).

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: This recent after-work gathering in Charlotte resembles those held by any number of veterans groups.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Let's make sure everyone signs in. I'm glad you guys are here today.

PRICE: But as it convenes, one difference is obvious.

JOIE COOK: Everybody has the same foundation. So when you start talking, nobody goes, well, what was that like? Everybody has the same exact base. OK, you're all females.

PRICE: A crucial difference, says Army veteran Joie Cook.

COOK: So no matter what we're talking about - whether it's relationship or whether it's the kids or whether - everybody has that same base of going, oh, yeah, I know.

PRICE: These meetings for female veterans have been occurring over the past few weeks all over the country thanks to a grant from Wal-Mart and with support from the VA. The idea behind the Women Veteran Network, or WoVeN, is to build a gender-specific support system. Air Force veteran Cat Corchado draws on her own experience as she leads the meeting.

CAT CORCHADO: The military really made it seem like all you do is this and this and this and this. You need LinkedIn, and you'll be good. And so I got out of the military thinking I had this pad; I was good.

PRICE: But once out, she didn't feel tied into any sort of support.

CORCHADO: You get into this free fall, and you don't know how to climb back out of it. And so I thought my struggle was just mine, but I didn't realize until years later that every veteran but especially female veterans go through that free fall. And most of them find other female veterans that can help, but some of them never get out of that free fall.

PRICE: She says both male and female vets deal with stresses from wartime deployments and shifting out of the predictable regimented world of the military. But Corchado says women also may have other pressures, like being a single parent as she was when she moved back into civilian life.

CORCHADO: You know, that's difficult. And if you don't know who to talk to or you have no recourse, then you are that female veteran on the street, you know, living in your car with your kids. It's horrible.

PRICE: Retired Army Colonel Ellen Haring is research director for the advocacy group Service Women's Action Network.

ELLEN HARING: Women have increased risk factors.

PRICE: Risk factors that increase the likelihood of problems like homelessness, unemployment and depression and contribute to a suicide rate among female veterans that's nearly 2 1/2 times greater than among civilian women.

HARING: They're more likely to be single and have children. They have - struggle getting jobs at equivalent pay that their male counterparts do. They're more likely to have been assaulted. Certainly they've been harassed.

PRICE: And the cumulative effect can be that free fall Corchado talked about. VA experts on women's mental health say the transition to the civilian world has long been a priority, but the VA and Pentagon are focusing on it even more. They'll be co-hosting a workshop on it in August for some of their health care workers. Transitioning out and suicide prevention will be central topics. Haring's group also has ideas.

HARING: First of all, assess. Make sure the assessments take into account the possible differences in the experiences between men and women, and then give recommendations on what they need to do about it. Right now, it just seems like a one-shoe-fits-everyone. There isn't any gender analysis that goes into the assessment process.

PRICE: The group has half a dozen recommendations. One is offering better access to counselors trained and working with women who've experienced sexual harassment and assault. Another is establishing better social support groups and networks like the one Corchado works with...

CORCHADO: So we talked last week about balance. We're going to talk about stress relief today.

PRICE: ...Where female veterans can help each other avoid that free fall. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Charlotte, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jay Price is the military and veterans affairs reporter for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC.