By Valerie D. Lockhart
SUN EXECUTIVE EDITOR
Battles to protect human rights, of life, liberty and freedom, have been fought overseas, but active combats for basic rights are underway on American soil.
Thousands of female veterans have become casualties of war, wounding some with homelessness, denying medical treatment and benefits, and experiencing post traumatic stress disorders.
Following in her younger brother’s footsteps, Mary Busch enlisted in the army and volunteered several times to be deployed for combat hoping to become “a part of something bigger than myself.”
Her requests were denied; but little did she know that she would face another conflict at home.
Wounded from a Humvee accident combined with severe reactions to immunizations required to serve overseas, Busch was medically discharged from duty shortly before reaching her 3 year anniversary.
“I was literally at pre-deployment on my way to deploy as an individual attaché (alone with a unit that I had never trained with), when I received my first ever MRI,” she explained. “I was instructed that I would not be allowed to deploy as I could possibly put my fellow soldiers in jeopardy if I fell, stumbled, or couldn’t pick up a fallen comrade that was on my 24th birthday. I had started having problems after a service wide change in physical training curriculums for Army soldiers, severe allergic reactions to some of our immunizations needed to go overseas and a Humvee accident used in our training for ‘deployment settings’. I had never experienced falling for no reason, not being able to stand and walk, losing my words, incredible pain in my head, and forgetting how to add and where I put things. I was an athlete, dancer, weight lifter and was used to sprains, bruising, pulled muscles and tired body, but not this. I joined the Army as a weight lifting, dancing, running, jumping, and healthy woman. I did not enter with any medical waivers or allergies, without heart, lung, vision, bone, muscle or speech and vision issues.”
Busch’s health further deteriorated, limiting her activity.
“Being in your duty station it is frowned upon to have a profile that limits what you can do exercise wise,” Busch said. “It is expected of you to put on your big girl pants, don’t complain, drink water, take ibuprofen, and strap in your bootlaces. I can still remember the day something went pop, and I couldn't move, walk up to my barracks room, dress myself and even (experienced) the embarrassment of losing control of my bladder.”
During her active Duty, Busch underwent several medical treatments that included removing her reproductive organs and having brain surgery.
Just as painful as her ailments were the remarks she received from civilians and military personnel.
“I was devastated that I could not go on my deployment and still receive negative stigma from civilians, even other service members and some veterans for not really being their personal version of what a ‘real’ veteran is. I am doing my part and working with other women veterans to help foster a positive correlation between your identity as a woman veteran and as a civilian and break the stigmas associated with those negative thought patterns.”
A return to civilian life has not healed Busch’s injuries but has enhanced it. She has been denied medical treatment at the VA Hospital and has to fight for military benefits. As a result, this has led to her experiencing homelessness and fighting for custody of her children.
Busch is not alone on the battleground.
According to statistics released by the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, “for any veteran with dependent children, being identified as homeless creates a threat and fear of youth protective services assessing the situation as dangerous and removing the children from their parent.”
Women currently make up 8% of the total veteran population and 14.6% of the active duty military, increasing to an estimated 16% by 2035. The number of homeless women veterans has doubled from 1,380 in FY 2006 to 3,328 in FY 2010.
Monique Gardner, who served in the Army for 7 years and in the Persian Gulf War, is also fighting for veteran rights. Upon return to civilian life, she encountered new challenges.
“Once I arrived home, my mother and sister kept saying that I was not the same and that I acted different. I ignored them and moved far away,” Gardner said. “After getting home, I did recognize that I had a problem with authority figures and listening to others and my attitude was bad. I was like a ticking time bomb. Years later and two husbands later, I am currently married and he began to tell me that I needed to get some type of assistance. He was almost my 3rd divorced husband.”
Gardner thought that things were getting better when she was “offered an opportunity of a lifetime.”
“I was offered a position making $98,000. I thought that I had struck gold. They had only spoken to me on the phone,” Gardner said. “They had never seen me face to face. My husband and I decided to relocate to Murfreesboro TN and I accepted the position. After arriving we found us a place, and it was time for me to report to work. When I got there, I was excited. When I arrived I looked upstairs on the landing and saw two Caucasians standing and talking. I sat for 30 minutes, and then finally a young lady came down and called my name and said that the position had been filled. I was crushed. I was the wrong color.”
The disappointment led to Gardner abusing pain pills and constant bickering with her mate.
“I was so confused. We came back to Detroit with nothing. We lost our furniture and all of my belongings that had been sold in a storage unit that we could not afford to pay. My life took a spiral. When we came back to Detroit, we slept in the car for 1 year. There were times when we ate only two pieces of chicken on Tuesday at Church’s Chicken. My husband ate the thigh, and I ate the leg. We drove a BMW that I could no longer afford, so you know that the finance company was looking for it and insurance was thing of the past. We had family, but I certainly wasn’t asking anyone for help. My husband stuck it out with me and got some odd jobs, so we could get a room and take a bath. Most of the time, we would pull in at an abandoned home. He said, ‘baby you need to go to the VA’, and I said for what. I have done my time. They don’t owe me anything. He said they will help you and I say no way.”
Like Busch, Gardner had to fight to receive benefits rightfully owed to her. It became a 2-year battle, before Gardner received help.
Unlike male veterans, there are very few shelters and programs offered to their female counterparts.
“The playing field is unleveled, when it comes to female veterans,” Alexis Derriso, of the Motown Women Veteran Association, said. “Male veterans are given housing and medical benefits. Females have to fight for it. There is only one shelter near Detroit servicing female veterans, and they just opened. That’s why I’m fighting hard for female veterans.”
To help win the war against homelessness, greater awareness and resources are needed. Also, some may have to deprogram from the military’s belief that asking for help is a sign of weakness.
“Address the mental issues. Don’t just push them to the side, as they will never go away without assistance. Ask for help,” Gardner urges. “We veterans are very prideful. Put the pride aside and ask for help. We need people. I know that we were taught a lot of things in the military but we have to ask for help. We need each other.”