Blog: Supporting women veterans into civilian life

Published: 19 Jun 2020

Author: Tony Wright
Blog: Supporting women veterans into civilian life

In 2019, there were 15,000 women serving in the UK armed forces. This equates to approximately 10.5% of the serving population. Yet, women veterans are, to this day, a hidden, invisible and marginalised population. Similarly, they do not identify with the term ‘veteran’ and are often overlooked by the public and media when it comes to celebrating or recognising their service, contribution, or sacrifice.

"It is our aim, through a combination of research, education, advocacy and support, to create a dedicated service for women veterans who are struggling to cope with life after military service." - Tony Wright, Fellow

Women have always played a key and pivotal role during peacetime and at times of conflict. However, many report differences in the way they adjust and assimilate back into civilian life. It is interesting that there are no gender specific employment or mental health programmes available to women serving in the military or indeed after they have transitioned back to civilian life. If they need support, they have no other option than to access services that are predominately designed for, and accessed by, their male counterparts. There has never been a national mapping exercise to find out what happens to women veterans after service.

In response, Forward Assist, the veteran's charity that I founded, created ‘Salute Her’, a dedicated support group for women veterans. As part of a fact-finding process, we facilitated women veteran only consultation groups. We wanted to design a service that was fit for purpose and we contacted experts in the field, many of whom I met during my 2011 Churchill Fellowship. In partnership with Baseline Research, we trained a core group of women veterans in the principles of ethnographic research. Over the course of 12 months, 100 women were interviewed by their peers and all shared their lived experience before, during and after military service. The report can be accessed here.

The findings were both alarming and shocking. Some 52% of the 100 women interviewed reported they had been sexually assaulted whist serving. This came as a surprise, as we thought that any identified trauma would be connected to service-related experiences incurred during active service in places like Northern Ireland, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

At this juncture, there is little if any gender-specific trauma-focussed support for women veterans (or serving personnel) after they leave the military and transition back to civilian life. Unresolved trauma in any form may take many years before it can be processed by the survivor. It can be extremely damaging to the individual’s physical and mental wellbeing and negatively affect all areas of their lives, including personal relationships, intimacy, employment, confidence and self-worth. It is often a cause of profound unhappiness, anger, depression, anxiety, self-imposed isolation and loneliness.  

I have just been awarded a WCMT Activate Fund grant. This will allow me to set up Salute Her as a registered charity and create materials for publicity, campaigns and training in partnership with the women veterans. We will also convene a multi-disciplinary, strategic, stakeholder group to help facilitate systemic change and access specialist support when needed. We are intending to organise an international conference that will focus on both the needs of women veterans and Military Sexual Trauma (a term yet to be adopted by the UK Ministry of Defence).

Military Sexual Trauma (MST) has been defined by the US Department of Veterans Affairs as any sexual assault or harassment experienced during military service and applies to both men and women. Examples include:

  • Being pressured or coerced into sexual activities (such as with threats of negative treatment if you refuse to cooperate, or with promises of better treatment in exchange for sex).
  • Someone having sexual contact with you without your consent (such as when you were asleep or intoxicated).
  • Being physically forced to have sex.
  • Being touched in a sexual way that made you uncomfortable.
  • Repeated comments about your body or sexual activities.
  • Threatening and unwanted sexual advances.

It is our aim, through a combination of research, education, advocacy and support, to create a dedicated service for women veterans who are struggling to cope with life after military service.

Since my Churchill Fellowship, I have used the findings of my research to design a service that is both ‘person centred’ and ‘needs led’. I am still in contact with many of the leaders who I met on that life-changing trip. I travel to the USA at least once a year, to research new topics and explore innovative ways to support military veterans on both sides of the Atlantic. We have also established a reciprocal Veterans Exchange programme, and we host themed visits to our respective countries to further develop innovation and best practice in the care of those to whom we owe so much.

On reflection, my Churchill Fellowship was, without exaggeration, a significant life-changing event. It was the start of a life journey that keeps evolving and presenting new opportunities for me to pursue my interests. As someone once said: life is a journey filled with lessons, hardships, heartaches, joys, celebrations and special moments that will ultimately lead us to our destination. Well, thanks to WCMT, I have arrived at my destination.

Tony will be sharing insights from his recent research on the experiences of women veterans in the UK as part of a webinar on Wednesday 1 July at 9pm. Register here.

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