Our communities are not keeping up with the dramatic changes that have taken place with our military personnel in recent years. Now, women are 20 percent of our current military population throughout the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force. That statistic has a striking effect on our communities.
Women are now in the “special needs” category. I thought all returning military had “special needs” but the description allows us to give thought and action to a group of soldiers who need to be welcomed back to our communities with care and thought.
The astounding popularity of MilitaryWomen.org, for example, reflects needs that our communities are not used to addressing. What can communities do best for the women veterans who are returning to their communities?
For one, we can listen. Women are not unique in that they have played witness to the horrors of combat. Their response to the horrors differs from those of men. Women desperately need outlets for expression. Many women suffered in their military service in ways that they are not allowed to share. We cannot expect these women to tough it up and stash the toxic emotions that will harm them in the future.
Find safe and confidential outlets for women to share. Admittedly, this sounds easier said than done because two elements must be provided for our women: safety and confidentiality. Many well-intended citizens assume the women need professionals to counsel them back into civilian life. Yes, professional counselors are enormously valuable but the community can provide many other outlets for the women. For instance, communities can provide logistical support to allow all the women veterans to convene safely amongst themselves. Corporations can donate meeting space along with coffee and bagels to allow women to meet, vent, share and stabilize in a confidential and protected environment. If it’s helpful for the women soldiers, it’s helpful for the community.
Women have historically taken on major responsibilities for managing their households. When they return from active duty, those responsibilities still await them. Communities can be creative about how they provide support to each woman in her household. If there are children, the community can take turns including those children in their own playtime activities. Relieving the veteran from food duties is often an outstanding way to provide emotional support. One community provides a “community buffet” every Friday night to honor their women veterans. The soldiers are invited guests and not expected to contribute. This allows them to receive care from their community and ease into their civilian roles.
Our communities can be creative about how they can collectively contribute to the health of their returning troops. One community has invited a woman veteran to lead the weekend jogging activities every Saturday. When the woman arrives, she is introduced, applauded and ceremonially asked to lead all the other runners on the weekend jog around the community. A small gesture of support to keep the woman healthy and ensure she is re-integrated into the community.
Communities have an abundance of creative energy and support that has not yet been tapped. We know war is traumatic. We know our soldiers continue to experience trauma after they return. It’s time to get our communities in gear to reduce the degree of trauma for returning soldiers.