A voice for women military vets

The wars on ter­ror­ism have giv­en wo­men a high­er pro­file in the mil­it­ary and on the bat­tle­field. Six years ago, based on her own Army ex­per­i­ences, Cathy San­tos star­ted the Na­tion­al Al­li­ance of Wo­men Vet­er­ans to high­light im­port­ant is­sues and pro­tect their in­terests.

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

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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