Patti Gerhauser, who served in the U.S. Navy, isn’t a stereotypical version of a military veteran.
Neither is state Sen. Pam Iovino, D-Mt. Lebanon, who was on active duty for 23 years in the same branch.
About 10% of today’s veteran population is female. And according to Gerhauser’s testimony at a Senate Democratic Policy Committee hearing hosted by Iovino, the transition back to civilian life generally is more difficult than that for a male.
“The military is a very hyper-masculine organization, and as women learning to fit into that, sometimes those habits are hard to break once you get back into the civilian sector,” she said during the July 24 event at Steamfitters Local 449 in Duquesne Heights. “And a lot of people are turned off by assertive women who speak their minds and aren’t afraid to tell you what they think, which is a necessity in the military.”
The hearing, held July 24 at Steamfitters Local 449 in Duquesne Heights, gathered information about how agencies can provide better service in a state that some 800,000 veterans call home, and to help address the needs of “the veteran who might be a little different than the stereotype,” according to Iovino.
As women veteran program coordinator for the Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania, Gerhauser provided insight from what she has learned through her job.
“Women veterans experience higher rates of unemployment, lower median income and are more likely to live below the poverty threshold than their male counterparts,” she said, with childcare costs and lack of financial literacy as major contributing factors.
A result is that women represent the fastest-growing segment of homeless veterans.
“The number of women identified by the program as homeless or who accessed VA programs to end homelessness tripled, to 36,443, in a five-year period ending in 2015,” Gerhauser told the committee, citing a 2016 report by the National Center on Homelessness Among Veterans. “That figure, according to the center, is projected to rise by about 9%, to nearly 40,000, by 2025.”
Gerhauser said her organization has six housing units for women veterans and their children in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties, but there always is a waiting list.
Her work often takes her to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs location, and she told the committee she generally is impressed by the services offered, including those through women-specific centers.
“But when I go and talk to their women program coordinators, they’re having a heck of a time getting women in the door, even with all of those things in place,” Gerhauser told the committee. “It’s not so much an issue with the service providers. It’s an issue with the environment of the facility in general.”
Women often are susceptible to sexual harassment by male veterans who are waiting for services, she said.
“They are especially sensitive to this type of behavior, and it comes down to: Are you going to put yourself through that, sitting in a waiting room re-experiencing things when you’re there to see a provider because of that trauma. It’s very counter-intuitive,” she said. “And a lot of the tactics they’ve used to mitigate that are counter-intuitive in my opinion, as well.”
Some facilities have built private entrances for women or have waiting rooms that are for women only.
“They’re not the ones at fault for what’s happening,” Gerhauser said.
She provided several recommendations for addressing the problems faced by women veterans, including financial literacy education, workforce training and professional development, childcare support and programs to curtail gender discrimination and harassment.
Also with regard to women who serve in the military, West Deer Township filmmaker JulieHera DeStefano showed the committee the trailer for “Journey to Normal: Women of War Come Home,” her feature-length documentary that details the service and re-entry to civilian life of eight female subjects and their families.
DeStefano spent three-and-a-half months embedded with the U.S. military in Afghanistan, interviewing and filming more than 100 women. She later established the nonprofit Journey to Normal Inc., which among other facets offers training programs for veterans.
“All of our work is aimed at bridging the military-civilian cultural gap and understanding,” she said. “We must fundamentally change the conversation we have about veterans in this country. We must move toward a more comprehensive understanding and appreciation of their experiences, and support them in a way that recognizes and fosters their innate resiliency.”
Lisa Boscola of Lehigh and Northampton counties chairs the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. She expressed enthusiasm about Iovino hosting the hearing.
“As one of the very few veterans serving in the Senate, her unique experience, perspective and advocacy for military personnel and veterans will be a profound impact on our legislative proposals and priorities in Harrisburg,” Boscola said.
Iovino, who served in President George W. Bush’s administration as assistant secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs and later as director of veterans services for Allegheny County, spoke about what civilians can do to help members of the military make the transition away from the service.
“Before taking on the task of trying to understand where they are, simply invite them to where you are: to your neighborhood, to your book club, to your children’s play group,” she said. “Help in that reintegration back, without putting the responsibility on the veteran to help you understand.”