A voice for women military vets

Cathy Bennett-Santos, founder of the National Alliance of Women Veterans

Among more than 58,000 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., eight are women. Of 6,288 U.S. military casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001, 142 have been women.

Yes indeed, women have taken a more prominent, demanding and diverse position in America’s modern military. They have taken on additional responsibilities and have personified the heroism long expected from their male counterparts.

Military women have also encountered more pitfalls to accompany their expanding role since the Vietnam era. Gender often is central to the problem.

“You’re talking about unwelcome sexual advances that create a hostile environment for you, and it usually involves a superior,” said Cathy Santos, founder and executive director of the Philadelphia-based National Alliance of Women Veterans.

While serving as a U.S. Army medical specialist at Fort Monroe, Va., between 1989 and ’92, Santos says she was harassed and raped by three males in her workplace. And though she eventually reported the incidents to military authorities, justice was not served.

Instead, for more than a decade following her honorable discharge, she wandered a wilderness of sorrow, fear and emotional paralysis, all fueled by psychoactive medications administered by a Veterans Administration hospital.

That was until she took a stand.

Since starting the NAWV in 2005, Santos has influenced change not only in the way that the military views sexual conflict among its members, but also in the opportunities and assistance available to women veterans in their civilian lives.

“What my advocacy has been able to do is create policy,” Santos said.

The continuum of challenges facing many women veterans only begins with their service-related victimization.

According to Santos, in the post-9/11 era, one of every three military women reports to having been sexually harassed or assaulted. Before 9/11, the frequency was about one in six.

The trauma can leave lasting scars. Some women end up addicted to drugs and homeless while trying to forget the past. Others lose focus and never realize their professional potential. Yet others struggle with family relationships. Some end up in prison.

Initially, Santos withdrew from those around her. She was still working at the military hospital but stopped interacting with others. “I didn’t report it at all. I was going to do my two years (enlistment) and I was focused. I recognized this was the norm for the military environment,” she said. “But I kept a personal record. I documented everything.”

In a bizarre twist, Santos’ supervisor reported her to command because she was refusing to talk to anyone.

“I became a threat to them because I wasn’t talking. If you’re not playing their game, you become a threat,” she said.

She was reassigned to a less desirable position and, at one point, committed to a mental facility for seven days. Eventually, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, offered a medical discharge and monthly payments from the VA.

In 1993, she testified before a U.S. House Veterans Affairs subcommittee hearing to discuss health issues among women veterans, who today number about 1.8 million.

But even as she pursued her pre-enlistment goal of a college education, her emotional problems persisted. She studied sociology and computer science and was accepted to law school, all while visiting Philadelphia’s VA hospital monthly to get her prescriptions.

She earned a master’s in economic development at Eastern University, a Christian school in St. Davids, Pa., and completed a counseling program through Georgia-based Andersonville Theological Seminary.

“Even as I was getting my degrees, I was having some very difficult times,” she said.

After one particular hospital visit, she got her meds, took them and couldn’t bring herself to leave her house for 13 days. She reached the realization that the medicines were intended for maintenance and not healing.

“When I was discharged from the military with PTSD, I thought it was going to be an opportunity to be healed,” Santos said. “I didn’t know the atmosphere with the medicines was to always be dependent on them.”

When she finally got out of the house, she checked herself into the VA hospital and began asking more questions — such as why had she been treated for post-traumatic stress disorder for so long, but not as a rape victim?

And why didn’t VA hospitals have separate units for women and for dealing with victims of sexual trauma?

She began speaking out on the issue. Around the time the Philadelphia Tribune interviewed Santos for an article on the subject, Washington state native Suzanne Swift was making headlines as an accused U.S. Army deserter. She said she had been raped in Iraq and refused to go back.

Within months of starting the NAWV in 2005, Santos learned that the militant approach wasn’t always best when dealing with high-profile public officials and military. Most military women were reluctant to confront the sexual-assault issue head-on.

“I learned I had to create more of a network, a casual call (to action) because women are reluctant to talk about it,” Santos said.

She billed her first NAWV gathering in Philadelphia as a “Women Veterans Tribute,” honoring prominent women veterans. Fifteen women registered. First one participant spoke of her victimization, then several did.

“The NAWV had taken off now. We had an event and we had an agenda,” Santos said.

The organization now conducts quarterly meetings, has a Web presence at NAWVPhilly.com and has a printed newsletter. Santos hosts a weekly Web-based radio show Mondays at noon that streams to the NAWV site. The NAWV is a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit.

In January, Santos hopes to shift the group’s efforts from networking and outreach to program development with peer-to-peer counseling, workshops and referral services, “now that I have a foundation, a network across the country.”

“Women need to know that there is help out there. Whatever you’re going through past your military experience, I can help you,” she said. ••

Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215–354–3031 or wkenny@bsmphilly.com