Nyack Sketch Log: Defending the Honor of Women in the Military

NSL145_Women in the Military_Featured Imageby Bill Batson

Women make up 8% of U.S. veterans, a number that is expected to double by 2035. Nyack’s Anngela Vasser-Cooper is leading the charge to secure recognition and services for local women veterans. As part of that mission, Vasser-Cooper will lead a group from Hudson Valley to the Women’s Military Service Memorial in Washington, DC on June 19.

You might be surprised by what the former medical social worker for the Veteran’s Administration thinks about the resignation of Veteran’s Secretary General Eric Shinseki. You will be shocked to learn the cause of one of the most devastating and recurring wounds suffered by women who serve our nation in uniform and the culprits inflicting that injury.

NSL145_Anngela in UniformAnngela Vasser-Cooper enlisted in the Army in 1980 and served for six years in Korea, Japan and Alaska, following her father, uncle and two aunts into military service. After her service, Vasser-Cooper became a medical social worker and spent five years at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Manhattan. In 2011, she founded the Women Veterans Association of Hudson Valley.

Vasser-Cooper has strong feelings about the challenges facing women veterans like the scandal concerning wait times at the VA that forced the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary General Eric Shinseki, and the epidemic of  homelessness and suicides among men and women returning from military service in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, stitched into the fabric of almost every anecdote that she shares is the issue of sexual assaults against female soldiers by their male comrades in arms.

Women in the Military

Dates and statistics tell the story

According to the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2013 there were 214,098 women in the military or 14.6 % of our armed forces and 1,853, 690 women veterans or 8%. Women make up 19.5% of the reserves and 15.5% of the National guard.

Until the Army and Navy Nurse Corps were established in 1901 and 1908 respectively, Women did not officially serve in the US military. Before that, women supported the armed forces as contract and volunteer nurses, cooks and laundresses. However, some women were so eager to serve, they impersonated men in order to enlist.

More than 150 women have been killed and 800 wounded during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to the Department of Defense, more than 1 in 5 female service members reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact while serving in the military.

Only one woman has received the Congressional Medal of Honor , the highest medal awarded for service to the military, a civilian by the name of Dr. Mary Walker. Dr Walker was awarded the medal by President Andrew Johnson on Nov. 11, 1865 for her actions throughout the U.S. Civil War. It was rescinded in 1917 before being reinstated by President Jimmy Carter in 1977.

The Women in Military Service for America Memorial was originally built in 1932 as the ceremonial entrance to Arlington Cemetery. The memorial, that includes the monument, meeting rooms and a gift shop, honors all women who have served in the U.S. armed forces beginning with the American Revolution. The memorial officially opened to the public on October 20, 1997.

“Many women who have returned home from Afghanistan and are unable to talk to others have shared their pain with me. They have mental health issues that need to be addressed. It can be overwhelming to be deployed to a foreign country where language, customs and religion are different. Some are reporting trauma, such as sexual abuse and rape,” Vasser-Cooper said.

A recent report released by the Defense Department  showed that more than 1 in 5 female service members reported experiencing unwanted sexual contact while serving in the military. If you factor in a culture of underreporting and the source of the statistic, the number could be disturbingly higher. There is even an acronym for the outrage, MST (Military Sexual Trauma.)

NSL145_Senator Gillibrand with victims of Sexual Assault

Senator Gillibrand, center, flanked by women who reported unwanted sexual contact during their military service.

The hopelessness many victims feel is compounded by a flaw in the military justice system. “When a rape is reported, we have to complain through the chain of command. So for many women, the person who raped them has the power to determine the outcome of their complaint.”

Vasser-Cooper is encouraged by the work of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand on this issue. New York’s junior senator is sponsoring legislation called the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA) S.1752. The law would move the decision whether to prosecute any crime punishable by one year or more in confinement to independent, trained, professional military prosecutors.

NSL145_Group Shot_w:Vaught

Vasser-Cooper, third from left, is joined by Brigadier General Vaught, Assemblymember Ellen Jaffe and her sisters-in-arms.

Even though Vasser-Cooper is well aware of the harm that the mismanagement of scheduling at the VA has caused veterans, she was disheartened by the resignation of General Shinseki  because “under his administration a lot of programs for women were enhanced.”

Women Veterans of Hudson Valley has two priorities.” I want to get every female veteran to be recognized for her contributions, sacrifice and dedication to her country. I also want to get women veterans assessed for their psychological and social needs so that they can receive the services they have earned.”

Support Women who Serve

Join Anngela Vasser-Cooper on June 19 to visit the Women in Military Service Memorial in Washington, DC and meet Brigadier General Wilma Vaught. $20 per person, seats are limited.

The trip is open to veterans, service men and women and the public.

The bus departs from the First Baptist Church, 3 Hoyt St. in Spring Valley at 5:45am and returns 10pm.

Contact Nancy at (845) 596-6267 or 480-5660 for more information.

Visit Women Veterans Association of Hudson Valley to learn more about their programs.

For the last three years, Vasser-Cooper has organized a conference on issues confronting women veterans in the Hudson Valley. Over 70 women veterans from World War II to Iraq and Afghanistan attended her third annual conference in April, 2014.

“Each year, the event gets larger,” Vasser-Cooper said. The head of the Women’s Military Service Memorial in Washington, DC, Brigadier General Wilma Vaught  was the keynote speaker this spring. Brigadier General Vaught will meet the group that Vasser-Cooper is bringing to the memorial in Washington, DC on June 19.

Vasser-Cooper is currently looking for funding to open an office to conduct assessments and help women veterans with a full spectrum of assistance with housing, employment and to provide counseling to help them cope with traumas associated with their service.

“Women put their country first when they enlisted, just like men,” Vasser-Cooper reminds us.

If we as a nation tolerate a culture that permits women to be so despicably dishonored while trying to serve us honorably, we are putting women in the military last.

An activist, artist and writer, Bill Batson lives in Nyack, NY. Nyack Sketch Log: “Defending the Honor of Women in the Army“ © 2014 Bill Batson. Visit billbatsonarts.com to see more.

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