By Samantha Kubek
I had the opportunity to speak about my work on behalf of female veterans after the two screenings of the documentary Served Like A Girl. Last January, I established the nation's first legal clinics for women veterans at the Bronx and Manhattan VA hospitals which provide a safe space in which clients can receive trauma-informed legal assistance. As an Equal Justice Works fellow, I represent women veterans through free legal clinics at VA hospitals in New York City. The majority of my clients are survivors of military sexual assault or rape. I've seen the terrible suffering of far too many and the failure of the military to adequately punish attackers and help survivors deal with their trauma.
When I speak about my work, I often discover the public is largely unaware of what goes on behind the scenes for our dedicated military personnel. The Department of Defense estimates that about 8,600 women and 6,300 men were sexually assaulted in our armed forces in 2016. In total, nearly 500,000 veterans have survived military sexual trauma. There are roughly 55,000 homeless women veterans across the United States, and women veterans are often homeless with children. On a given night in 2014, roughly 4,500 women veterans were homeless. Rates of suicide by women veterans are on the rise, with women
veterans committing suicide at nearly six times the rate of non-veteran women. Twenty veterans (men and women) commit suicide a day. That's nearly one every hour.
I represent these women on their VA benefits cases, helping them to obtain monthly compensation for the lasting trauma they still bear. I also assist with housing and family law matters, as women veterans are the fastest growing homeless veteran population, and experience domestic violence at disproportionately high rates. Women veterans report feeling "invisible", and my clinics were created with the goal of assisting these veterans as well as raising awareness of the struggles of this population.
Several bills are before Congress that could greatly help this population. Please call your Congresspersons and tell them to pass the:
Military Justice Improvement Act: moves the decision-making authority on whether to prosecute sexual assault and other serious crimes to independent, professional military prosecutors
Deborah Sampson Act: ensures supportive services for women veterans. A key component of this act requires the government to establish a partnership with at least one nongovernmental organization to provide legal services to women veterans.
Homeless Veterans Prevention Act of 2017: enables the VA to provide funding for legal services for homeless veterans and those at risk of homelessness.
There are few organizations dedicated to helping women veterans, but two were highlighted in our discussion:
LegalHealth, a division of the New York Legal Assistance Group provides free legal services to women veterans in matters including VA and social security benefits, family law, housing, advance planning, discharge upgrades, and federal student loan discharges.
Final Salute, Inc. seeks to provide homeless women Veterans with safe and suitable housing and aids in the prevention of homelessness for at-risk women Veterans.