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Health & Wellness

Easing Transition to Civilian Life for Women Veterans

MED researchers create network with Walmart Foundation grant

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Women make up 15 percent of US active duty troops, and they often face unique challenges during their deployment—and after they come home. Unlike veterans with physical wounds, post-traumatic stress disorder, or adjustment problems such as substance abuse or depression, who can look to the VA and other groups for help, many who don’t have such issues also may struggle to readjust. Two BU School of Medicine researchers are building the Women Veterans Network (WoVeN) to help women who have served to thrive in civilian life.

“We wanted to build this network for women veterans of all eras, increasing support, decreasing isolation, helping them find camaraderie in the community, and using all that as a platform to provide reliable information and resources,” says Tara Galovski, a MED associate professor of psychiatry and director of the Women’s Health Sciences Division at the National Center for PTSD at the VA Boston Healthcare System Jamaica Plain campus.

All soldiers returning to civilian life have to deal with the loss of the unit cohesion and support structures they had during their service, two assets that have been shown to be particularly important for women, according to Amy Street, a MED associate professor of psychiatry and Women’s Health Sciences Division deputy director. Galovski and Street were recently awarded a $469,000, 15-month grant from the Walmart Foundation to bring together women vets for learning, conversation, and mutual support. The money is part of a $40 million Walmart commitment to job training, education, and innovative programs to aid veterans returning to civilian life.

The Women Veterans Network will hold 10 weekly 90-minute sessions for groups of 8 to 10 veterans that will begin with warm-up exercises to get them talking, go on to a didactic element such as a video or an educational presentation, and then a guided discussion. A social activity, such as a group walk or a coffee shop visit will wrap up the session. “It’s really designed to get people talking and to strengthen those relationships,” says Street.

“We thought that connection with other women who have shared some of those experiences could be really important in helping those women get to where they want to be, in terms of their well-being,” Galovski says.

Of the 22.3 million veterans in the United States, 9 percent, or roughly two million, are women, and the number is growing. Because of the relatively small numbers of female veterans, the researchers say, the vets without problems that have programs, like PTSD, physical injury, and depression or substance abuse, may not easily find women in civilian life who have shared their experiences, compounding their challenges during and after reentry. “We were really interested in women who didn’t have those diagnosable conditions,” Galovski says, “but felt that in some area of their life they could be functioning better, their well-being could be improved.”

The BU researchers are “taking their vast array of knowledge to the field and testing out more of a veteran-to-veteran network, female veterans working to build a bridge and support one another,” says Kathy Cox, a senior manager with Walmart Giving who focuses on veterans issues.

Cox says that women veterans may face particular challenges, from sexual stressors during their service to being single parents at home, and they don’t always get the help they deserve. “If they haven’t served in combat, they may not even see themselves as veterans. They are also pretty resilient, so they are hesitant to ask for assistance,” she says. “So what we can see is a pretty rapid decline. If there is one piece of the puzzle that falls apart, they are quicker to fall into a crisis situation. They’re last to ask for help.”

Galovski and Street will spend this year preparing program materials and training peer leaders for each group in a two-month pilot program, which will begin early next year in Pittsburgh, Pa., San Antonio, Tex., and Charlotte, N.C. After refining the plan based on that experience, they will expand to eight cities, and ultimately to anywhere there’s a need. The researchers will measure the effect of the pilot program sessions, with regular checks on the participants’ success, from social relationships to occupational functioning to mental health. And they plan to include veterans who have been in civilian life for some time as well as those whose deployments have ended recently.

“It’s going to make a big difference in terms of service members’ ability to more seamlessly reenter the civilian world,” says Anna Hohler (CAS’98, MED’98), a MED associate professor of neurology, assistant dean of clinical and strategic affiliations, and director of the Center for Military and Post Deployment Health.

As director of the center, Hohler works collaboratively with Galovski and Street, although she is not directly involved in the WoVeN project. She previously served for eight years as an Army physician.

“Although the numbers are expanding, women are still a bit of a minority group within the military, and in the civilian world women vets are a rare breed indeed,” Hohler says. “This project will provide a bit of a head start for them, a long-lasting support structure, and people with a like-minded view in terms of things that are happening in the civilian world.”

2 Comments
Joel Brown, writer, BU Today at Boston University
Joel Brown

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@bu.edu.

2 Comments on Easing Transition to Civilian Life for Women Veterans

  • Maureen on 03.01.2017 at 11:19 am

    Thank you. This is so overdue.

  • Laurie Fegal-Witzberger on 06.29.2017 at 11:04 am

    This is great news for our female veterans.
    I am so looking forward to bringing this to the Pittsburgh Pa area. Our Pittsburgh VA serves not only Pittsburgh but the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia and Jefferson , Belmont and Carrollton Counties of Ohio.
    I am looking forward to working with these veteran sisters to help with their needs, and to build a trust in showing them they are not alone. We are a family , not by blood but by patriotism.

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