"There's been a lot of sexual trauma," said Susan A. Piazza, 59, of Lawrence, a U.S. Navy veteran during the Vietnam War era.
"During the past several years, there have been numerous high-ranking officers who have been let go because of sexual aggression toward their female subordinates. When it happens to a woman, she feels stupid that it happened," said Piazza, a longtime officer of the Queen City Chapter #2 of the Disabled American Veterans, which several communities throughout the Merrimack Valley and southern New Hampshire.
"You don't expect a fellow comrade to take advantage of you. And if you do come forward, you're disrupting the whole company," she said.
But Piazza credited Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, D-Lowell, with helping to bring long-overdue reform in the way the Defense Department handles military sex abuse cases.
The Defense STRONG Act, legislation authored by Tsongas and signed into law by the President Obama earlier this year, expanded legal rights and protections for men and women service members who have been the victims of sexual assault.
Piazza cites the lack of housing and day-care facilities as the most glaring needs facing women veterans returning to civilian life.
"For female veterans, a lot of the problems they have coming back are compounded by the children they have," Piazza said.
"Until the VA starts building more day care centers and housing for women veterans, we're going to have a problem. A woman can't seek work or housing without someone taking care of her children," she said.
When Piazza was in the service, hardly any returning women veterans were married or had children, she recalled.
"Things have changed. Most of the women today are married and have family," she said.
Campbell agreed that officials need to look at families in addressing problems faced by many women veterans.
"You always need to be cognizant of the fact they have children that are part of that need for support," she said.
"It's important to provide a mechanism to bring families together," Campbell said.
Some efforts made
Unique transitional housing for women is a current focus of the Legislature and the
Department of Veteran Affairs, according to Campbell. Current women-only facilities are located regionally throughout the commonwealth in Boston, Chelsea, Jamaica Plains, Worchester, and North Hampton.
"These facilities provide not only temporary housing , but substance abuse treatment programs, job counseling, access to medical care, and community responsibilities aimed at helping women recover from the wounds of war," Campbell said.
Earlier this year, the state opened a new Women's Health Clinic at the VA Center in Bedford, which includes private waiting rooms for women, primary health care, mental health and OB/GYN care.
Don Silva, of Lawrence, finance officer and claims service officer of Queen City Chapter #2 of the Disabled American Veterans, said he sees a need for greater involvement by women veterans.
"That's always been the tendency in the past -- few women in military service seldom participate in veterans organizations. They join, but seldom participate," Silva said.
"It's all based on membership participation. If you don't have membership participation, you don't have a strong voice. The DAV goes out of its way to help women veterans, but the women veterans have also got to participate." he said.
Silva said a good percentage of veterans claims that his volunteer group assisted in filing involve women.
"Out of 40 claims we have serviced since June, probably about a third are women, recently discharged and returning veterans right up to spouses of World War II and Korean War veterans," Silva said.
"Women's veterans and widows of deceased veterans. You've got to include the spouses because they are important in this mess," he said.
Silva said he sees progress, though.
The state DAV elected the first woman to be its state commander, Anita Reed.
Also, for the first time, this year, the Chelsea Soldiers Home is accepting women as residents, he noted.
"That was always a man's institution," he said.
"Thank God we have a bunch of guys now who are open-minded. You can't be close-minded to women veterans," he said.
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