More than 200,000 women have served their country with the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last 11 years in the aftermath of the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
State officials fear that many of these veterans have returned home only to become silent victims of war because they don't get the help they need on a variety of health, social issues and economical issues.
"We feel we only have a partial grasp of the problem," state Rep. Linda Dean Campbell, D-Methuen, said in an interview last week.
"Unless they reach out to us, it's difficult to tabulate how many there are. It's hard to gauge whether they need additional support or not because veterans are the last folks to ask whether they need additional help. So, it's incumbent for us to reach out to them first because we have comprehensive services to offer them," said Campbell, vice chair of the Joint Committee on Veterans and Federal Affairs.
Officials estimate anywhere from 15,000 to 26,000 women veterans in Massachusetts -- one in 10 who served in the Iraq or Afghanistan conflicts, according to Campbell. There are close to 3,000 women veterans across Essex County.
Women are the fastest growing population of veterans, accounting for 15 percent of the active duty service members and 20 percent of the new recruits, she noted.
The plight of women veterans and the complex challenges they face upon their return home has been an ongoing concern for the state Department of Veterans Services for several years. It has also been a primary area of expertise for Campbell during her time in the state Legislature. She's a U.S. Army veteran who served eight years of active duty, including two as a paratrooper.
"For most women veterans, the challenges coming home are the same as their male counterparts: difficulty finding a job and adjusting to civilian life without the support of their 'military family' and dealing with the wounds of war, both visible and invisible," Campbell said.
"The commonwealth recognizes that sometimes women veterans return to civilian life with unique challenges. Among these are that more are parents or single parents. Some have experienced sexual trauma. They have unique health care needs," she said.
"This generation that is serving has been deployed to combat arenas multiple times -- more than any generation in the history of our country and we need to take care of them," Campbell said.
With increased exposure to combat, more women veterans than ever suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
"There is no front line and no rear any more on the modern battlefield," Campbell said.
"Wherever you are on that battlefield, it's pretty constant what you're exposed to. It applies to both men and women," she said.
'A lot of sexual trauma'
Sexual trauma -- which includes sexual abuse and sexual harassment -- has been a major concern of federal officials in recent years.
As many as one out of three women leaving military service have reported being the victim of some form of sexual abuse. U.S. Defense Department officials estimate there were 9,000 sexual attacks on women in the military last year, but that only 3,191 cases were actually reported.
Women are reluctant to report sex abuse, fearing possible retaliation by their superior male officers. The percentage of these cases being prosecuted has been low, further discouraging women from reporting the abuse.
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