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Women make up 15 percent of US active duty troops. They often face unique challenges during their deployment—and after they come home. Those with physical wounds, post-traumatic stress disorder, or problems such as substance abuse or depression may turn to the VA and other groups for help. But even women veterans without clear post-service issues might struggle to readjust.
Over the next year, thanks to a major grant from the Walmart Foundation, two BU School of Medicine researchers are leading the development of a Women Veterans Network (WoVeN) to help women who have served to thrive in civilian life.
“We wanted to build a sustainable network for women veterans of all eras, increasing support, decreasing isolation, providing reliable information and resources, and helping them find camaraderie in the community,” 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 support structures they had during their service, structures 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 will use the $469,000 Walmart Foundation grant to fund the first 15 months of a program that will bring together women veterans for learning, conversation, and mutual support. The grant is part of a $40 million commitment by Walmart and the Walmart Foundation to support job training, education, and innovative programs to aid veterans returning to civilian life. It is the foundation’s first grant to BU.
WoVeN will hold 10 weekly 90-minute sessions for groups of 8 to 10 veterans that will begin with conversational exercises to get them talking and will include an educational component, a guided discussion, and a social activity, such as a group walk.
“We know connection with other women who have shared some of those experiences can be really important in helping women veterans get to where they want to be, in terms of their well-being,” Galovski says.
The BU researchers are “taking their vast understanding of veterans’ experiences 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 Walmart Giving senior manager who focuses on veterans’ issues.
Cox says that women veterans may face particular challenges, ranging from sexual harassment and even assault during their service to being single parents at home. “If they haven’t served in combat, they may not even see themselves as veterans,” she says. “Women veterans are also resilient, so they are hesitant to ask for assistance. If there is one piece of the puzzle that falls apart, they are quicker to fall into a crisis situation. They’re the last to ask for help.”
This summer, Galovski and Street are working with focus groups, preparing program materials, and training peer leaders for a pilot program that will begin in August in Pittsburgh, Pa., San Antonio, Tex., and Charlotte, N.C. After refining the plan based on the pilot group experience, they will expand to eight cities in early 2018, and ultimately to anywhere there’s a need.
The researchers will measure the effects of WoVeN sessions, with regular checks on the participants’ success. And they plan to include veterans who have been in civilian life for some time as well as those whose deployments ended recently. In the next phase of the project, the team will develop an interactive educational website designed for women veterans who cannot participate in WoVeN groups in person.
“This program, which is one of many operating through our school’s Center for Military and Post Deployment Health, will make a real difference for women readjusting to civilian life,” says Karen Antman, MED dean and provost of the Medical Campus. “We are grateful to the Walmart Foundation for helping us advance our work with veterans—work that has long been a priority at MED and across BU.”