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Winter 2012

Volume 40
Number 3

Access and Success for Nontraditional Students



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Florence Hamrick Corey Rumann
Florence A. Hamrick
Corey B. Rumann

Addressing the Needs of Women Servicemembers and Veterans in Higher Education
By Florence A. Hamrick, professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at Rutgers University, and Corey B. Rumann, assistant professor in the Department of Collaborative Support and Intervention at the University of West Georgia

Since President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, successive GI Bill programs have enabled veterans and servicemembers to pursue higher education and vocational training that might otherwise have been unaffordable to them. At the same time, the US military has become increasingly diverse since 1948, when President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 to end racial segregation in the military. The most recent generation of veterans and servicemembers earning educational benefits and pursuing postsecondary education is the most diverse to date. Women comprise a growing share of this group, having expanded from 1 percent of active duty military in 1964 to approximately 15 percent at present (Government Accountability Office 2005). As colleges and universities create or augment campus services for military students and students formerly in the military, attention to serving women must be a critical element of their efforts.

In discussing the needs of military women in higher education, we do not intend to essentialize or stereotype women veterans and servicemembers or erroneously suggest that they are a homogeneous group. As in all facets of life, individuals’ experiences in the military can vary considerably, and how they interpret the meanings of their experiences can lead to a range of conclusions. Each person is ultimately the authority when it comes to her or his life experiences. At the same time, studies suggest that women are disproportionately affected by particular experiences in the military, and colleges and universities should be aware of the potential implications for women veterans and servicemembers who subsequently enroll in college.  

Setting the Context

In 2007–08, military students (veterans and servicemembers) comprised approximately 4 percent of both the graduate and undergraduate student populations, with women representing 27 percent of undergraduate military students and 35 percent of graduate military students (Radford 2011). These students serve or served in a US military that is quite diverse. According to a 2005 federal report, women comprise 15 percent of the active military (approximately 63 percent of all servicemembers) and 17 percent of the reserves (approximately 37 percent of all servicemembers) (Government Accountability Office 2005). Among the branches of service, the Air Force has the highest share of women at 20 percent (Moore and Kennedy 2011). Meanwhile, the Army and Army Reserves are the most diverse in terms of race and ethnicity with respect to gender. Forty-six percent of all women servicemembers are people of color, while 58 percent of women in the Army and 53 percent of women in the Army Reserve are people of color (Government Accountability Office 2005).

The contemporary US military offers access to training, education, and career advancement opportunities for its diverse population of officers, enlisted personnel, and reserve personnel, but these opportunities are not necessarily equal for all. The federal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy—which was repealed in 2010 and effectively discontinued in September 2011—has affirmed the rights of lesbian, gay, and bisexual servicemembers to serve openly. However, combat exclusion policies continue to perpetuate discrimination based on gender. These policies prevent women from entering only about 5 percent of military position classifications (Moore and Kennedy 2011), but those classifications encompass combat and combat-related specialties that inform the male “warrior” archetype associated with military service (Solaro 2006). Combat exclusion policies limit not only where women can serve, but also the levels and types of training they typically receive. Yet growing evidence suggests that “few front lines and few secure rear areas” exist in contemporary war zones (Solaro 2006, 14). In the Lioness Program, for example, women servicemembers who have not been assigned to ground combat units are nonetheless attached to these units to perform tasks (such as searches of women) in ways that are consistent with local cultural mores (McLagan and Sommers 2008). 

Among recent veterans, women are equally if not more likely than men to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Department of Defense Task Force on Mental Health 2007). Combat is not the only established trigger for this condition. For example, in 2006, one-third of women (and 6 percent of men) servicemembers reported being sexually harassed in the military, most frequently by fellow servicemembers. Women who experienced sexual abuse by fellow servicemembers were four times more likely to develop PTSD than women who did not (Resnick 2008, cited in Benedict 2009). Contemporary task force reports and other studies continue to investigate the incidence and outcomes of, as well as prevention and aftercare related to, military sexual trauma (MST), which ranges from sexual harassment to assault or rape. Available Veterans Administration (VA) services and programs designed specifically for women are growing, but they do not yet meet demand, which has increased sharply in recent years.     

Hypermasculine Culture 1

Scholars have identified a hypermasculine military culture characterized by strict hierarchy and tacit, if not active, misogyny (Finlay 2007). This culture persists in part through ongoing demonstrations of power expressed through domination or humiliation of the weaker “other,” including women (Finlay 2007) and military prisoners (Kaufman-Osborne 2007). Men are not necessarily the aggressors in these demonstrations, nor women the victims. Both men and women engage in constructing, performing, and assigning masculinity as well as femininity (Kaufman-Osborne 2007). In and of itself, then, increased gender diversity will not necessarily transform an organization’s masculine culture. Indeed, changes in practice are also needed. Rules now bar drill instructors from using racial epithets, but sexist and homophobic slurs remain common in basic training and in call-and-response rhymes that are chanted or sung in unison during marches and runs (Benedict 2009). Moreover, the enduring personification of the military in images of men with guns and the men who command them is masculine as well as male-bodied. This stereotype persists even though most servicemembers, whether men or women, perform jobs that are not combat-related. 

Combat exclusion policies reflect a deep and persistent skepticism of women as capable of skilled and effective armed aggression. They also ensure that the skepticism thrives by justifying the practice of withholding advanced combat training from women, even those who are subsequently attached to combat units. These policies effectively create a self-perpetuating cycle that rationalizes denying women access to specific forms of military service. Despite continuing evidence of women’s valor and courage in combat engagements, the policies reinforce prevailing constructions of femininity and of women in general as weak and incapable of defense or aggression.

One popular rationale for combat exclusion policies is the belief that men will instinctively move to protect women within their units rather than focusing on the mission at hand (Benedict 2009). But status within a hypermasculine culture depends on power demonstrated by dominating, if not humiliating, those positioned as weak, even within an organization. The homophobic and sexist slurs discussed above may not be endorsed by the military, but neither are they prohibited. Their continued use leaves little doubt about how women are positioned in military culture. In addition, MST experienced by women servicemembers (as well as smaller numbers of men) may represent demonstrations of power that, although decried and denounced by military officials, are consistent with a culture that values, rewards, and reveres its dominant members.

Implications for Serving Student Veterans and Servicemembers

Colleges and universities that strive to support veterans’ comprehensive success must meet the needs of all enrolled veterans. One common recommendation is that campuses create professionally staffed veteran services offices as central contact points for enrolled and prospective student veterans. On a growing number of campuses, this office is housed in a stand-alone facility or in conjunction with related support services. A second common recommendation is for campuses to designate a private or semi-private campus space as a veterans’ lounge where students can gather informally and student veterans’ organizations can provide programming, including peer outreach and support. Although we endorse those recommendations, we also encourage campus representatives to ensure that the spaces they create are welcoming of all veterans and servicemembers. While some women veterans may readily take advantage of these spaces, others may be indifferent to or avoid them.

Sometimes women’s reluctance to enter these spaces stems from their experiences with others’ perceptions of their roles as female servicemembers. For example, in one study of women student veterans, a respondent recounted facing others’ discomfort, skepticism, or disbelief when she discussed the combat trauma that was part of her experience as a medic at a forward operating base (Hamrick and Rumann 2011). Resistance to the idea that women serve (or should serve) in combat situations, sometimes proceeding from superficial or narrow understandings of combat exclusion policies, can lead listeners to discredit or minimize women veterans who may have expected a validating or empathetic response to their stories.

In addition to providing inclusive campus spaces, colleges and universities can serve veterans more effectively by offering referrals to counseling services for evaluation and possible therapy. As discussed above, trauma related to combat or sexual harassment and assault can trigger or amplify PTSD for women veterans. Yet evidence suggests that clinicians may be more likely to recognize PTSD symptoms in women as indicative not of PTSD, but of depression, anxiety, or related conditions (Becker and Lamb 1994). This misdiagnosis may stem from persistent beliefs that women servicemembers are not permitted to engage—and consequently have not engaged—in combat (Department of Defense Task Force on Mental Health 2007). Stereotypes or skepticism about women’s lived experiences may lead to discrediting or minimizing women veterans’ experiences (Iverson and Anderson, forthcoming) and those experiences’ outcomes.      

Child care can also pose challenges for women veterans and servicemembers. In first-person accounts, deployed military women often express concern about care for their dependent children during their deployments. But nationally representative data are not available to document the prevalence of these concerns or to summarize strategies or support programs available to deployed parents. Nonetheless, it is important to note that due to time restrictions on GI Bill educational funding, eligible veterans frequently enroll in college soon after they return from deployment or separate from service. If child care was a concern during deployment, it likely remains a concern for returning servicemembers and veterans with children.  

In light of the above examples, college and university representatives should ensure that the services they offer meet the needs of all veterans. One challenge is to provide structures and camaraderie that are familiar and comfortable for veterans and servicemembers, but that avoid perpetuating the hypermasculinity that can marginalize and demean women. Service offices can review their facilities, staffing, and programs with the following questions in mind:

  • Are children and family members welcomed in facilities that house veterans’ services?
  • Do partnerships exist between veteran services offices and campus- or community-based child care providers?
  • Are women and people of color represented among veteran services offices’ professional or paraprofessional staff?
  • Do veteran services offices establish strong partnerships and referral relationships with women’s centers and sexual assault services, as well as with campus and community medical and counseling services?
  • Do planned speaking engagements (whether by outside speakers or enrolled veterans and servicemembers), topical events, and staff professional development programs include opportunities to build awareness about perspectives and experiences of women in the military?
  • Do staff members actively advocate for women veterans and for appropriate services and resources to address their needs?

Existing veteran services offices should also compare the demographics of the veterans they serve with those of all veterans enrolled at their institutions. If women veterans are disproportionately underrepresented among an office’s constituents, staff members should not assume that women are accessing resources and services elsewhere. This might or might not be the case. Many VA programs have long waiting lists, and community-based services can be expensive, restricted, or scarce. Staff should thus engage in sustained outreach and adapt their services and programs to meet the range of needs of veterans and servicemembers.

A growing number of resources are available to help faculty and staff learn more about women in the military. The documentary film Lioness explores the experiences of women servicemembers during and after deployment, and the supplementary footage included on the DVD touches on efforts to recognize women’s military service. Multiple autobiographical accounts of women’s experiences in the military and in service academies and other military colleges are readily available. The Department of Defense and VA websites feature commissioned reports on a variety of topics, and organizations including the American Council on Education and the Association of American Colleges and Universities have published articles about veterans enrolling in higher education. Additionally, a book that we coedited—Called to Serve: A Handbook on Student Veterans and Higher Education—is forthcoming from Jossey-Bass.   

Implications for College Culture

Finally, colleges and universities should recognize that campus-based services for veterans and servicemembers do not exist in a vacuum. Higher education institutions have prevailing and often tacit cultures, structures, and practices that affect the college experiences of both veteran and civilian students, and college and university leaders should examine the implications of these realities. Although fully developing this recommendation exceeds the scope of this article, studies and analyses of higher education conducted over several decades have described a largely masculine culture that can marginalize women, despite the growing numbers of women students who enroll. This culture can function, even inadvertently, to limit women’s ability to develop their skills and talents.

Custodial parents, whether military or civilian, may share concerns about securing quality child care as they enroll and complete their academic degrees. Sexual harassment, assault, and abuse by one’s peers are clearly not limited to military contexts, nor are displays of power and dominance, particularly within academically and socially competitive environments like colleges and universities. College and university leaders should denounce the use of sexist and homophobic language publicly and quickly. They should also challenge entrenched skepticism about women’s capabilities in nontraditional areas such as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) to provide environments that foster women’s success.

Higher education institutions are recognizing the imperative to serve veterans and servicemembers, but a one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to meet the diverse needs of this population. Campus representatives should develop awareness about the needs of women veterans and servicemembers without stereotyping or minimizing their military service. One critical way to build this awareness is to reach out specifically to women veterans and servicemembers and listen to their stories and experiences to identify factors that will foster their success. Leaders should also examine the cultures, structures, and practices in veteran services offices and on the campus as a whole. These actions will help ensure that all veterans and servicemembers will receive the support they need to succeed.

References

Becker, Dana, and Sharon Lamb. 1994. “Sex Bias in the Diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.” Professional Psychology Research and Practice, 25, 55-61.

Benedict, Helen. 2009. The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Department of Defense Task Force on Mental Health. 2007. An Achievable Vision: Report of the Department of Defense Task Force on Mental Health. Falls Church, VA: Defense Health Board. 

Finlay, Barbara. 2007. “Pawn, Scapegoat, or Collaborator? US Military Women and Detainee Abuse in Iraq.” In One of the Guys: Women as Aggressors and Torturers, edited by Tara McKelvey, 199–212. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press.

Government Accountability Office. 2005. Military Personnel: Reporting Additional Servicemember Demographics Could Enhance Congressional Oversight (GAO-05-952). http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-05-952.

Hamrick, Florence A., and Corey B. Rumann. 2011. “Women Servicemembers and Veterans Returning to Colleges and Universities: An Exploratory Analysis.” PowerPlay: A Journal of Educational Justice 3 (2): 1–30. http://www.emich.edu/coe/powerplay/docs/vol_3/issue_2/03_hamrick.pdf.

Iverson, Susan V., and Rachel Anderson. Forthcoming. “The Complexity of Veteran Identity: Understanding the Role of Gender, Race, and Sexuality.” In Called to Serve: A Handbook on Student Veterans and Higher Education, edited by Florence A. Hamrick and Corey B. Rumann. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kaufman-Osborne, Timothy. 2007. “Gender Trouble at Abu Ghraib?” In One of the Guys: Women as Aggressors and Torturers, edited by Tara McKelvey, 145–66. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press.

McLagan, M., and D. Sommers, producers and directors. 2008. Lioness. Motion picture. United States: Docurama Films.

Moore, Bret A., and Carrie H. Kennedy. 2011. Wheels Down: Adjusting to Life After Deployment.  Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Radford, Alexandria W. 2011. Military Service Members and Veterans: A Profile of Those Enrolled in Undergraduate and Graduate Education in 2007-08 (NCES 2011-163). Washington, DC: US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics.

Solaro, Erin. 2006. Women in the Line of Fire: What You Should Know About Women in the Military. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press.

1 Due to space considerations, this discussion is necessarily brief. Readers should consult the works cited for more detailed and comprehensive information.

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