Like all women, women in the military face enormous hurdles in life and work. Less than 17% of active duty military members are women due to the fact that the military doesn’t target them as much for recruiting. This is because women are almost 30% more likely than men to leave it before retirement. According to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office, the top two reasons women typically only serve out their contract (around four years, generally) are sexual assault and a lack of family planning provided by the military (vasectomies are paid for, but abortions are not). Because women are leaving the military earlier than men, less women are being promoted and serving in leadership roles. As a result, the women who are just joining and beginning their service don’t have many women above them to support them or understand them. On top of that, this brings a lack of important perspectives to the military as a whole. If more women were in charge in the military, women would have a better chance of being believed when they are assaulted, assaulters would be held more accountable, and the issues that are exclusive to women (such as the need for abortion care) would be taken care of because they would be understood.
Women in the military deserve better. Whether or not you agree with war, the fact of the matter is that it exists. It exists, and that sucks, but we need to support the women who are putting their lives on the line to keep us safe. It’s a huge sacrifice, even if they never see the violence that comes with combat. If no one volunteered to serve, those of us who haven’t had to make that sacrifice would then be put in the position to have to be drafted. No matter your politics, we owe people in the military a debt of gratitude, and no one sacrifices more in the military than the women. They aren’t just sacrificing what the men are—they are also at a higher risk of rape, assault, and violence against them. One in three women veterans report suffering from Military Sexual Trauma (MST). 63% of all assaults in the military are against women, in part due to the fact that few are in charge and the men above them in rank feel that they can act aggressively toward those below them. The less women are present, the higher the assault numbers become. In the last few years, sexual assaults against women in uniform have drastically increased by 50%, and that’s just based on what’s actually being reported. The true statistics are predicted to be much higher. Being in the military is risky for anyone, but for the women? It can be a nightmare.
These women deserve to feel safe, empowered, and supported. While civilians don’t have control over keeping these women safe, they can help them feel heard and loved in various ways.
Believe women in uniform when they come forward.
One of the most powerful ways you can support female service members is to believe them. This goes for all women, but due to the extra hurdles that women in uniform have when they speak up about abuse that they experience, it’s especially important to believe them. Listen and ask them how you can support them during this time.
When you see a woman in uniform, thank her (at the very least).
While they may face a lot of struggles at work in the military, that shouldn’t bleed over into their daily life. Make it easier for them by thanking them for serving for you. If you’re at a coffee shop, buy their coffee. If you’re at a restaurant, buy their dinner. Go out of your way to make whatever moment they’re having easier and more filled with love. Be genuine when you thank them, and ask them questions. Make it clear they are supported and valued.
Support the women in your life who choose to serve.
Rather than asking them if they think they can “handle it” or focusing on how tough it will be, support them. They know it’s hard, but when men decide to join people give them praise and tell them how proud they are of them for being brave. When women join, people flood them with a doubt of their abilities and strength. Don’t do that. Celebrate for them and be proud of them.
Vote for people who support women.
The president sets the tone for the military, since they are their commander in chief. If they are someone who disrespects women, women won’t be prioritized in the military. Don’t vote for people like that. Vote for people who set a tone of inclusion and kindness, and the military will reflect that when it comes to how they treat their own. Consider even writing to them and talking about the need to improve life for women in the armed forces. Let them know it’s important to voters.
Share the stories of women in uniform (with permission).
When a woman comes forward about her story, don’t just believe her—share what she has to say, if she’s okay with it being public. This increases awareness about the issues women in uniform face, and will hopefully lead to increased funding of programs that will make their lives easier.
Donate to Planned Parenthoods that are near military bases.
Right now, the military pays for vasectomies, but not abortions. It’s unfair, and it’s a huge burden that women face. Write to military leaders and government leaders about this injustice, but in the meantime, help the Planned Parenthoods that are local to military bases since those will be where these women have to go. With Republicans trying to shut them down, they are pretty scarce in certain areas of the country, meaning that women in uniform have to get permission to leave their boundaries to get the procedures done. They are often denied, shamed, and at the very least made to not be able to go as early (making the abortion even more painful for them). The closer a Planned Parenthood is to them, the easier it is for them to get the procedure without any more emotional or logistical tolls for them.
Be kind to women veterans.
When people leave the military, it can be hard for them to adjust to normal life. Many suffer from issues like PTSD, and as mentioned, many women deal with sexual trauma. When you meet a woman veteran, befriend her and show her love. Support her work, be there for her, and make her feel safe. If you know of a book or movie created by a woman vet, go read or watch it. if you see a local restaurant owned by one, go eat there. Help her acclimate to normal life and heal from the wounds that military service can bring. On top of that, ask her about her time in the military. Serving in the military brings about some incredible stories, and people don’t ask veterans about them enough—especially women, since people assume that they don’t see as much as the men. Asking about their lives isn’t just to serve you—it’s for them. Don’t only ask people who you assume have interesting stories. They all do—especially the women. Ask them about what jobs they had, where they’ve been, what they loved about their time, what they want civilians to know…just give them the space to tell you their stories. Let them know they matter, and so did the years of their life that was spent in uniform.
Donate to causes that help these women.
There are so many great causes out there that help women in uniform and veterans. Donate to them to make sure that they have resources and support in their lives. If you’d rather do something directly, send care packages to women in the military filled with good food—something many bases lack.
I’m very proud of the fact that my dad is a veteran, my grandpa was a veteran, and four younger siblings are all serving in the military currently- including my two sisters. They’re all extremely brave, and I’ve seen first-hand what they’ve given up in order to serve. I have so much respect for my sisters especially, and I hope this article helps you to understand that no matter your political views, there are real women behind the label of “military.” They have families, dreams, great laughs, favorite foods, fears, and names. They deserve our support and love. My little sisters are incredible human beings and amazing soldiers, and so is every woman who serves. Don’t let them be invisible. Protect them, since they protect you just by wearing the uniform on your behalf every day.
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Photo: Emily Iris Degn