It’s no secret that there is a growing number of women in the military. Because of this fact, military officials on Tuesday opened Philadelphia’s first center to provide services specifically for women veterans.
As was previously stated, military officials were on hand, as well as female veterans, when officials of the Veterans Multi-Service Center cut the ribbon at the Women Veterans Center, a new wing in the Veterans Multi-Service Center, on North Fourth Street in Old City before about 50 people. The coordinator for the Women’s center, Aronda Smith, hailed the new facility as a place of opportunity and support for women vets. Smith was an Army veteran who served in Iraq during Operation Desert Storm.
“One of the reasons we created the Women Veterans Center is because, just like when you serve in the military, [support services] are predominantly male,” she said. “There are not as many services offered for women veterans.” The Veterans Multi-Service Center is a non-profit facility that has provided services to male veterans since 1980. Although they have been providing services to women since the mid-1990s, they have not had a wing that specifically deals with the problems that women veterans face. The women’s center is located the ground floor of the five-story building.
“Just to have a private area and to have more gender-specific things that are pertinent to women veterans is important,” Smith said.
The women’s center is going to offer an array of services and workshops, including health and wellness, parenting after combat, employment counseling, credit counseling, networking, yoga, and home ownership. A Navy veteran, Sonya Searcy, said she welcomed the new center.
“I hope that all of us female veterans are off the street and have jobs and are well-taken care of in 2014,” she said.
One of the many other women veterans who attended the grand opening was Bernadette Ricketts, who served in the Air Force. She is hopeful that the center, in her words, “would help female veterans rebuild their foundations in the civilian world.”
Smith noted that among women veterans, “military sexual trauma” (MST) has become a significant problem. The women’s center will be offering counseling and help to those who need it.
“Sometimes there is a lack of understanding of what MST actually means, and sometimes that means that women don’t get the services they need,” Smith said.
Military Sexual Trauma is the term that the Department of Veterans Affairs uses to refer to sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment that occurred while the veteran was in the military. It includes any sexual activity where someone is involved against his or, in most cases, her will. He or she may have been pressured into sexual activities (for example, with threats of negative consequences for refusing to be sexually cooperative or with implied faster promotions or better treatment in exchange for sex), may have been unable to consent to sexual activities (for example, when intoxicated), or may have been physically forced into sexual activities. Other experiences that fall into the category of MST include unwanted sexual touching or grabbing, threatening, offensive remarks about a person’s body or sexual activities, and/or threatening or unwelcome sexual advances.
Supposedly, all veterans seen at Veterans Health Administration facilities are asked about experiences of sexual trauma, but having this women’s center encourages them to seek help even more. It is known that any type of trauma can affect a person’s physical and mental health, even many years later, but it’s also known that people can recover from trauma. Women veterans who are suffering from MST now have a safe place where they can seek help and recovery from bad experiences during their service in the military.
Officials of the state said there are more than 82,000 veterans in Philadelphia alone, and that 3 percent to 5 percent are women. There are 61,000 female veterans in Pennsylvania alone. Lori Maas, the women veterans program manager for the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in West Philadelphia, said that women are the fastest growing group using veterans services. The new women’s center has already enrolled 200 women into the many programs it offers, Smith said. The Veterans Multi-Service Center serves about an average of 2,500 veterans per year.
The past executive director of the Veterans Multi-Service Center, Marsha Four, is urging women veterans to share their experiences with each other.
“You can give so much to each other by sharing. . . . You have the opportunity to work toward changes,” Four said. “You should be proud of your service. Stay connected and stay strong.”