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Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez
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Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis

Remarks by Hilda L. Solis, Secretary of Labor
Women Veterans' Trauma Guide Launch
July 20, 2011
Washington DC

Good morning everyone. Buenos dias. Sara, thank you — muchisimas gracias — for that kind introduction and thank you for all of your good work at the Women's Bureau. I'd also like to thank General Wilma Vaught for graciously hosting us here this morning. Thank you, General. It's a great honor to be here with you once again. As former chair of the Bi-partisan Women's Caucus, it was a pleasure to work with you in celebrating the sacrifice of female veterans. And a big thank you to my friend and former colleague from the hill for joining us today: Congresswoman Gwen Moore, Co-Chair of the Women's Caucus. It's great to see you! To the members of our armed forces and the veterans who are here today: Thank you for your service to this country. We are grateful for your sacrifice.

And to all of you (audience) — the many family members, loved ones, and service providers — for coming today. Thank you for being here. You know, there are many honors and responsibilities that come with this job — some easier and some more difficult than others. But every now and then, I get the chance to be a part of moments like this one — moments that change lives — moments that remind me of why I believe in public service — of why I believe in giving back. It is that belief that brings us together today.

We're here today because of our shared responsibilities: to our families, to our communities, and to the American family as a whole. We're here because of our shared obligation to the countless mothers, daughters, and sisters in the military that have and will continue to risk their own lives to protect all of ours. We're here because in America, no woman in uniform should ever have to come home to homelessness.

The idea of women serving in the military is no longer a novel or an unusual one. In fact, women are enlisting more than ever today. As a nation, we've made great progress in that regard.
Where we've fallen short, however, is in meeting the challenges service women face when they come home. Too many women who once proudly wore our uniform now go to sleep in our streets, under our bridges and in vacant homes. Many of them sick, hungry, and without a shred of certainty about what tomorrow holds. So we've done something extremely unique at the Department of Labor.

To better understand the factors that lead to homelessness, we sat and we listened to homeless women veterans and service providers. We had real conversations with these women. We learned about their fears, their struggles, and the challenges they face everyday in readjusting to civilian life. And we took the voices of these women, and we turned them into an action guide for providers to be able to meet their needs in a more efficient and compassionate way. Our guide reflects the anonymous stories of thousands of women. I'd like to tell you the story of one of those brave women today. She wanted her story told so we could understand. So we can help others who are in her shoes.

Lisa Bowlings was raised in New York in a family of very modest means that moved around a lot. At the age of 18, her mother told her to either get a job or enlist in the military. She chose to serve in the Air Force — first on a base in Florida and ultimately in Germany. She worked on fighter planes as a life support systems specialist. She made sure that the pilots had the proper oxygen flow in the cockpit, so pilots had the air supply they needed to stay sharp and carry out their duties.

Tragically, she was also the unfortunate victim of sexual trauma. Lisa was expecting the base to be the safest and most stable place in the world. And like many trauma victims, she was afraid to speak up about it. Instead, she acted out, as many trauma victims do, and after two and a half years of service she was honorably discharged. Lisa returned home and tried to forget. So she internalized all of her issues, put herself through school, got a great job, bought a house, and even became a foster mom. It seemed she was on top of the world. But one day, one of her foster kids was diagnosed with cancer and later died from the disease. That's when all the issues Lisa had put away began to slowly creep to the surface.

She became overwhelmed, and became incredibly depressed to the point of not being able to get out of bed. Everything began to unravel. She lost her job, her home, and ended up on the streets, angry and confused about what was happening to her. She didn't know that she was suffering from PTSD. What's worse — she didn't know that there were people that could help her. Luckily, she was referred to one of our one-stop career centers, and they sent her to the VA for help. Lisa found the counseling services helpful, but she still wasn't breaking through. Meanwhile, she got help finding housing and was hired part-time as crossing guard here in D.C. She has recently undergone her most successful treatment to date and attributes this to saving her life.

Lisa battles the symptoms of PTSD every single day. But she also hasn't given up hope. She's told us that "if she keeps fighting it, it will wear down." And here's another thing about Lisa: Today, she's sitting right behind me. But it's time that we stand behind Lisa, and the other women like her who need our help now more than ever. Lisa, thank you for your service, for being here today, and for letting me share your story. And thank you to all the brave women like Lisa who are here today. Let's give them a round of applause. Lisa's story is only one of the countless distraught women veterans today.

The statistics are staggering. Research suggests that the majority of female Veterans have been exposed to some type of trauma. And a study by the VA found that as many as one in three women report they were raped or sexually assaulted while serving. An estimated 75,000 Veterans, male and female, are homeless, sheltered or unsheltered on any given night. Over the last decade, the number of homeless women Veterans has nearly doubled. And the risk for the women coming from Iraq and Afghanistan is growing by the day.

It's important to note that this issue is relatively new for many service providers. Traditionally, the service our veterans receive is given through the lens of the male veteran. But Lisa and countless women like her can tell you that their issues are simply different. While women veterans face the same issues as their male counterparts: PTSD, sleeplessness, and battle injuries, they also so face additional, unique challenges, too. Things like childhood abuse, domestic violence, and military sexual trauma, which increase the risk of homelessness and make re-adjustment and finding a job especially difficult. These special needs need to be taken into consideration. But many of the best and most senior service providers may not know how to effectively address all of these issues. Mainly because many of them have never had to, or because the treatment they know is largely tailored to meet the needs of male Veterans.

That's why the release of this trauma guide is so important. It's about more than raising awareness and providing information, it's about changing a culture. It's about giving back to all of our Veterans in a way that ensures both men and women get the treatment that they have rightfully earned. The trauma guide calls for collaboration from both the federal government and service providers, and is a key tool for reintegrating our most vulnerable female veterans back into civilian life and the workplace. It gives service providers research, self-assessment tools, and concrete trauma-informed practices that they can use to tailor their treatments and better serve the unique needs of women veterans.

It's also important to remember that this issue impacts not only the female veteran, but also their families, their children and our nation's workforce as a whole. I mentioned earlier that when Lisa came home she was intent on forgetting the military life she left behind. Unfortunately, that included her job skills. And she was doing some pretty high-tech stuff in the Air Force. The fact is, women of our military master some of the most advanced technologies, run some of the most complex operations, and have extensive experience managing hundreds of their colleagues.

In these challenging times, we can't afford to lose out on that kind of talent. We need to hone those skills and put them to good use right here in America. So that these women are able to live their lives with dignity, support their families, and never find themselves homeless because of all that they've gone through. But we can't do that unless female veterans get treatment that works. We need to make sure that these women feel safe, empowered, and understood. We need to instill in them a sense of hope. We need to make sure they know that recovery is possible. Like Lisa says, we need to make sure all female veterans know that "if you keep fighting it, it will eventually wear down."

As a woman, and certainly as a woman who is privileged to be the Secretary of Labor, I'm proud of this trauma guide and of the impact it will have — not only in the lives of these heroic women, but in the lives of their families, on the culture of treatment, and on our nation as a whole. There has never been a better time in our nation's history to take action on this issue that for too long has been cast into the shadows. There's too much at stake and I know that we can do better by veterans like Lisa. She and countless women like her have answered their call to duty, and we have an incredible obligation now to answer ours.

The launch of this trauma guide is an historic step in that process. For the sacrifice that these women have made and will continue to make, it's one way we can give back. Thank you again for sharing this moment with me today. God bless you, God bless our Veterans, and God bless the United States of America.