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Responding to the barriers women face

Wednesday, July 03, 2013 - Updated: 4:09 AM

For generations -- actually, for the first 230 years of our nation's history -- women were virtually shunned by our military. By custom, and finally by order, that has changed. And so, too, has the way the Veterans Administration has provided care for women veterans.

In the early history of the United States, women had to sneak into the military by disguising themselves as men. There are many well-documented cases of this in the Revolution, the Mexican War and Civil War.

In World Wars I and II, thousands and thousands of women served, mostly as nurses or in behind-the-front-lines roles. All of those roles were crucial to the war effort, but the situation painted an obvious picture of a military far more dependent on male efforts than female.

Last January, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, under urging from military brass, at last declared that women would be allowed to serve in the infantry and other fighting units alongside men. Several have performed valiantly, winning the highest commendations for daring in battle.

Right now, women account for 14 percent of our nation's military -- more than 200,000 members.

Unfortunately, in spite of the record clearly proving that, as in every other workplace, women belong shoulder to shoulder with men, there have been far too many instances of sexual harassment and even sexual assaults.

The VA was slow in reacting to these realities.

Women rarely reported the incidents for fear of retribution or being deemed weak. When they would report to a VA hospital for counsel or treatment, they were obliged to enter premises again dominated by men. Sometimes, the verbal abuse would be repeated.

That is no longer the case, as the VA in upstate New York has opened a hospital devoted exclusively to women veterans. Responding to the plight of the women who were undervalued while in the service and again upon getting out, the VA now offers them all types of treatment and openly invites discussion of previously unmentioned atrocities -- even from decades ago.

The hospital is especially attuned to patients who suffered sexual trauma while on duty. A story in the Times Union of Albany detailed how women are encouraged to reveal their histories of sex abuse while in the military so they can be addressed, both physically and psychologically.

The military has not been proud of the way it has incorporated women into side-by-side service with males. Even the man hand-picked by the military to rout discrimination was himself charged with sexual abuses.

The country has a long way to go before it can truly say it welcomes women into the Army, Navy and Air Force and respects their contributions in the same way it does men's.

Post-military facilities such as the VA's near Albany will accelerate the process substantially.

-- The Plattsburgh Press-Republican


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