Check out the rest of our series on how Virginia laws affect women here.
In the third week of March, Virginia celebrated its second annual Women Veterans week, honoring the roughly 104,000 female veterans in Virginia.
It was a fitting celebration for the state that has the highest percentage of women veterans. Fourteen percent of veterans in Virginia are women, according to data from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Census Bureau Data.
But aside from that celebration, Virginia lawmakers did little to address the many substantive issues facing female veterans.
According to Women Veterans Interactive, a nonprofit that seeks to help women leaving the military, women veterans are less likely to find work and more likely to be homeless than their male counterparts.
The group also says that women veterans have less access to housing assistance, less specialized medical treatment and are more likely to have been the victims of sexual trauma while serving. The numbers back this up, as female veterans make up 95% of all reported sex crimes, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
The Department of Veteran Affairs is tasked with providing veterans with healthcare and several other benefits, including disability compensation, vocational rehabilitation and education assistance, but has struggled to do so effectively in recent years.
The result is tens of thousands of homeless veterans, veterans suffering from PTSD and a spike in veteran suicides. While the VA’s shortcomings also hurt men, women suffer disproportionately. More than 30% of VA medical centers don’t offer proper female treatment and female veterans frequently endure harassment at the VA.
Women in the military commit suicide at nearly six times the rate of other women, according to a report from the VA, and rates of female veteran suicide rival those of male veterans, despite the fact that men are generally far likelier than women to commit suicide.
Things don’t get any rosier when you look at the issue of homelessness, either.
Veteran women are more than twice as likely as non-Veteran women and over three times as likely as non-Veteran women living in poverty to experience homelessness, according to the VA.
And yet, the agency’s most recent count found that there were only a total of 485 homeless veterans – male and female – across Virginia in 2018.
What we do know is that women are the fastest-growing demographic of homeless veterans and more women veterans live in poverty than their male counterparts (9.4% compared to 6.7%), according to the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics.
So how many homeless female veterans are there in Virginia?
According to one estimate, there are 13,509 women veterans living in poverty in Virginia, and between 1,756 and 2,026 of those women are homeless.
As the rates of female veteran PTSD, homelessness and suicide spike across the country, several states have begun to specifically focus on addressing female veterans’ needs.
Virginia joined the growing group of states in 2018, hiring a full-time Women Veterans Program Manager to provide full-time support to Virginia’s women veterans.
But what about in 2019? What else did the state do to help women veterans?
The answer is not very much. Most of the laws proposed by lawmakers were relatively minor pieces of legislation.
The General Assembly passed HB 2685 from Del. Luke E. Torian (D-Woodbridge) and SB 1173 from state Sen. Jeremy McPike (D-Dale City), which extend the benefits of the Virginia Military Survivors and Dependents Education Program to the spouse or child of most disabled veterans.
They also passed HB 1655 and SB 1270, which can provide the spouse of a disabled veteran a property tax exemption on their primary home, even if they move to a different residence. Lawmakers also passed a constitutional amendment that provides a personal property tax exemption for one motor vehicle owned by a disabled veteran.
Beyond that, legislators made it easier for some veterans and current service members to obtain driver’s licenses, provided further educational opportunities to students who relocate to Virginia with their service member parents, and expedited the application process for service members’ spouses who are seeking their nursing licenses in Virginia.
The state also updated the process of how military retirement benefits are determined in a divorce so that it would be in accordance with federal law.
But what didn’t pass might be more noteworthy.
Republicans blocked legislation from Del. Marcus Simon (D-Falls Church) and state Sen. Monty Mason (D-Williamsburg) that would have expanded the National Guard’s State Tuition Assistance program to cover vocational schools and certificate programs, as well as the costs of fees and books.
Among the other bills that legislators rejected or opted not to consider was one bill that would have provided an additional 96 hours of sick leave to some disabled veterans and another that would have provided permanently disabled veterans an income tax subtraction on their military retirement income.
A constitutional amendment to extend the property tax exemption to more surviving spouses of deceased veterans also failed.
If these seem like relatively unremarkable bills that aim to work around the fringes of the massive issues facing women veterans, that’s because they are.
A clear void remains in providing women veterans with care, outreach and resources.
Groups like Women Veterans Interactive are trying to fill the gaps, but as more and more female veterans suffer from PTSD, experience homelessness, and take their own lives, advocates are looking to lawmakers to do more too.