The service of women in American war efforts is older than our nation itself. Women served as battlefield nurses, cannon loaders, spies and more during the American Revolution. Through two World Wars, tens of thousands of army nurses served overseas to care for the wounded. Some 7,000 women served in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, and 40,000 by the first war in the Persian Gulf. The most dramatic shift occurred in the last decade, with 200,000 women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the role of women in the military progressed further in January, when the defense secretary announced that our military will officially end its restrictions on women in combat roles exclusively held by men.
Throughout our 100-year history, the Labor Department has stood with our service women, and provided the reintegration services they needed upon returning home. While all veterans and their families deserve our utmost care and attention, women are the fastest-growing demographic within the veterans community and they often face unique challenges in the labor market. Even though women veterans are more likely to have completed some college, a bachelor’s degree or an advanced degree than men, they’re also more likely to have a service-connected disability rating, less likely to be insured and more likely to have no earnings or income – factors that can lead to poverty and homelessness.
New data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Employment Situation of Veterans report, issued yesterday, helps us understand the areas of need within the population of women veterans, and informs our collaborative efforts to provide the job training and employment services on which women veterans depend. According to the report, the 2012 average unemployment rate for women veterans is 8.3 percent, down from 9.1 in 2011, and it is 6.9 percent for veterans who are men, down from 8.3 in 2011. For comparison to the larger population, the 2012 average unemployment rate for women who are not veterans is 7.7 percent, and it is 8.1 for men. One reason for veterans’ improving numbers may be that the economy has been steadily growing, and more people are finding jobs.
For veterans who served from September 2001 to the present − the “Gulf War II” era − the 2012 average unemployment rate was 12.5 percent for women, which was virtually unchanged from 2011, and it was 9.5 percent for men, down from 12.0 in 2011. The reason for these higher rates involves multiple factors. One may be that many Gulf War II-era vets are relatively young, and younger people have higher unemployment rates. Also, we know that many veterans (men and women) tend to work for the government. Most federal, state and local government agencies have been dealing with budget problems for the past several years, and we’re experiencing the only economic recovery that has seen a loss in government jobs. Government agencies simply can’t hire as many new employees, and this particularly affects younger veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The department’s Veterans’ Employment and Training Service administers a number of services and programs, with input from the Women’s Bureau, that provide transition assistance to veterans seeking rewarding careers in the civilian workforce. One tool, My Next Move for Veterans, is an online resource that allows veterans to enter their military occupation code and discover civilian occupations for which they are well qualified. Gulf War II-era veterans also can download the Gold Card, which entitles them to enhanced services − including six months of personalized case management, assessments and counseling − at the roughly 2,800 American Job Centers located across the country. Additionally, the Women’s Bureau is the federal agency leading the charge to tackle women veteran homelessness. Through “stand downs” with women veterans and ongoing research, the bureau developed the Trauma-Informed Care for Women Veterans Experiencing Homelessness: A Guide for Service Providers to help address this issue.
Women veterans are not only warriors and pioneers, but also mothers, caregivers, wives and daughters with urgent economic needs and challenges. They are our sisters-in-arms, and we owe them not only our gratitude, but our unwavering support.
Keith Kelly is the assistant secretary of the Veterans’ Employment and Training Service and Latifa Lyles is the acting director of the department’s Women’s Bureau.