Lewis traveled to Washington, D.C., this week with dozens of female veterans to demand help from legislators.
The women shared their personal, and sometimes painful, experiences in the hopes of galvanizing bipartisan support.
Rana Clark, who served in the U.S. Army as an active-duty unit supply specialist before being medically separated because of an injury, said she had a difficult time finding resources that were available to her while integrating back to her civilian life. “I personally struggled, very, very much with my transition,” she said.
Clark said that she grappled with her mental health and had abused alcohol while trying to find a job and manage her disability. She described transitioning out of service as “like losing a leg, losing part of your soul … trying to figure out what makes you happy, how to be happy and how to be a productive member of society is very, very challenging.”
The Wounded Warrior Project report found that women veterans face higher rates of unemployment than male veterans and women in the general U.S. population, despite being more educated on average. More than 72% of women veterans reported having moderate to high financial distress, citing family and child care issues as the top barriers to employment.
Women veterans, the report found, also feel less respected than men after completing their service.
“It took me some time to actually recognize myself as a veteran,” Lewis recalled. “I’ve had instances where I walked into the VA for an appointment and they’re like, ‘Oh, what are you checking your husband in for?’ or ‘Hello sir, how are you today?’”
The report made a series of policy recommendations and the organization has worked with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to craft initiatives.
In the middle of a government funding fight, Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C., has found time to huddle with freshman Democratic Rep. Nikki Budzinski, of Illinois, to discuss the issue. Both lawmakers met with a group of women veterans Tuesday.
“There’s so much work that we have to do,” said Mace, adding that she has participated in a number of panels and roundtables with women veterans.
The Wounded Warrior Project has “all this data” on women veterans’ needs, she said. “They understand what their concerns are, what their needs are, and how we can help them from a resource perspective. So this could be medical care, mental health policy, jobs and unemployment, addressing all those things that are affecting our women as they transition out of active duty.”
Mace, who grew up in a military family and was the first woman to graduate from the military college The Citadel, said women have to work “twice as hard” to be treated as equal to men, sharing a personal anecdote that her fiancé is often mistaken as the member of Congress when she brings him to the Capitol.
Women, Mace said, “have to be extra loud in getting our points across and making sure that we can address issues of women and military veterans.”
She accused leadership at the VA of having a “lack of understanding” as to what veterans deal with on a daily basis but vowed to work with colleagues to craft policy that would match recommendations put forward by Wounded Warrior Project.
Budzinski, a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, said that even veterans issues — a topic that enjoys bipartisan support in Congress — have been politicized, and warned that the looming government shutdown could negatively impact an already strained VA system.
“What it would mean if we were to shut down is an inability for the VA to be able to recruit future staff and solve that staff shortage issue, but also to train people that are within the VA to provide that gender-specific care that out women veterans really need,” she said.
“We need to rise to this occasion in Congress and make sure that we’re fully invested in our veterans,” Budzinski said.