GREENSBORO — Sandra Robinson was in a meeting recently where everyone was asked to close their eyes. The word “veteran” was then mentioned.
“They said, ‘What’s the first thing that you think about?’” she said. “And the first thing that popped into a lot of people’s heads was a man. Even for women, they thought of a man. And that’s a big issue, trying to get people to realize that women serve too.”
Robinson served in Desert Storm, and in civilian life has worked as a nurse, often coming into contact with other female veterans.
Two years ago, she helped found Combat Female Veterans Families United, a nonprofit that helps with transitions back to civilian life, as well as providing assistance to those seeking counseling and benefits.
The organization, based in Greensboro, also runs a Cloth Closet, to provide business attire to women, and has a food pantry for those in need. It is also working on organizing a support group for those who suffered sexual trauma in the military.
“A big concern is having gender-specific groups,” said Michelle Turner, who served in Iraq and is a cofounder of the organization. “At the VA (Veterans Administration), they have group counseling, but female veterans, if they’re in a room with men, they might not be comfortable talking about MST (Military Sexual Trauma) or about personal issues.”
According to the Veterans Administration, 1.9 million women are U.S. veterans, making up about 9.4% of the total veteran population. Roughly 82,000 of those women live in North Carolina.
The VA projects that by 2042, women will make up 16.3% of the veteran population.
Women currently make up 16% of the active duty military. More than 170 female U.S. military personnel have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past 18 years.
Robinson, who served in the Army from 1986 to 1994, found in her work as a nurse that many female veterans liked having another woman to share their story with. She also found “a need for services.”
“The VA provides some services, but it’s limited,” she said. “We also wanted to bring some recognition, we needed to educate the community, and we needed to make our voices heard, so we could help other female veterans.”
A big focus of the organization is assisting veterans returning to the civilian world.
“Transitioning is the No. 1 problem,” Robinson said. “When we returned from Desert Storm, there was no transitioning program. So we returned straight from a combat zone with so many issues — medical, mental. And there was a delay in addressing a lot of those issues and getting treatment. People coming back now have the same issues. And you’re also trying to match your MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) with a job out in the community, trying to navigate your way back into society, like how to communicate with people in an environment that’s not as structured.”
CFVF United notes that the suicide rate among veterans is highest during the first three years after they leave the service. The organization’s transition program provides mentorship, education about how to access veterans services, and referrals to other organizations and businesses that can help build a support network.
Many women veterans also have medical issues stemming from the tactical gear they wear, Robinson said.
“A lot of the tactical gear was made and designed for men,” she said. “So you see a lot more women with foot problems, back problems, posture issues, and a lot of those have been minimized. We carry our weight differently.”
The organization wants to provide women with a space to discuss that, as well as issues of harassment or assault that they may have encountered in the military.
“It was brutal for a lot of women, so much so that they didn’t trust anyone,” said Elizabeth Angel, an Air Force veteran who served from 1983 to 1989. “I loved being in the military. But, unfortunately, there have been many times in the past where women soldiers have been treated harshly — a lot of sexual abuse, intimidation. Or you might get put out on post for 16 hours in an attempt to break you. You were made to perform more than anyone else as a way to prove your value. And it’s not easy to come forward about it, because you might get retaliated against, you might get a worse assignment.”
Angel, who lives in Asheboro, has long helped veterans network with one another and runs a group for those with service dogs. She became involved with CFVF United earlier this year, and recently joined the board. She describes the organization as “a life jacket.”
“A lot of people get exhausted from trying to deal with their issues from the military,” she said. “And coming across a group of females who are driven to help other females, that was kind of an anomaly for me. I grabbed a hold of this group and wanted in. It’s helped to be around other females who’ve experienced what I’ve experienced.
“These are women who’ve been in the trenches and found ways to help other veterans.”