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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

This week, we're exploring how America cares for its new veterans. And today, we're going to hear about one woman's experience. Many women veterans are returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rachel Caesar is one of them. As a child, she dreamed of joining the military, but her life in uniform was not what she'd hoped for. After serving 14 years, Caesar left the Army, and then she ran into trouble and ended up homeless. Eventually, Caesar turned to the V.A. for help.

Reporter Susan Kaplan of member station WFCR in Amherst met Rachel Caesar in Boston to learn how the V.A. hospital there treats its women veterans.

SUSAN KAPLAN: Rachel Caesar first tried to join the Army after she saw a recruitment insert in Jet magazine.

Ms. RACHEL CAESAR (Army Veteran): So I was eight years old, and I filled one out and sent it in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KAPLAN: It wasn't long before her mom's phone started ringing.

Ms. CAESAR: My mother explained to him, she is only eight years old. And she said, maybe you'll see her in 10 years.

KAPLAN: Sure enough, 10 years later, right out of high school, Rachel joined the Massachusetts Army National Guard.

Unidentified Man #1: Good morning.

KAPLAN: I met Caesar at an IHOP just outside Boston. She arrived early. We talked over blueberry pancakes and iced coffee, and she was pretty cheerful despite getting up at 5:30, a daily routine for the single mom of two sons.

How was your morning?

Ms. CAESAR: Good. I had to drive my youngest son to school. So I've been up, just keep moving.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KAPLAN: Caesar says her teenage son already wants to enlist. She'll probably let him, but her own experience didn't exactly live up to the dream she had of the Army as a kid.

In 1996, while on active duty in Korea, she became pregnant. She says after that, an NCO sexually harassed her.

Ms. CAESAR: He told me plain out that I should have been carrying his children. So I should have been having a sexual relationship with him, and I would have gotten promoted.

KAPLAN: Years later, during a deployment to Afghanistan in 2003, Caesar says she was harassed again. She says she tried to get help from a chaplain, but that went nowhere. Eventually, her health declined: a bad knee, migraines. She didn't want to complain, didn't want to think of herself as a victim.

Ms. CAESAR: Even though I was sexually harassed, I didn't think about it because I wasn't raped. I was never raped, but I was sexually harassed on many occasions.

KAPLAN: So in 2004, Caesar gave up the only job she ever wanted to do. She left the military. At first, she lived with her mother, barely functioning, she says.

Ms. CAESAR: I would take the kids down to the bus stop, put them on the bus, get back in the house, lock myself in the house, sleep all day because I was up all night because I couldn't sleep at night because of the nightmares and everything.

KAPLAN: Things got worse. Rachel and her mother weren't getting along. Unable to hold a job, with no money, she and her two boys ended up in a state-run shelter. And that's when, as a veteran, Rachel Caesar turned to the V.A. hospital in Boston.

Ms. LAUREN DEVER (Clinical Social Worker, Women Veterans' Homelessness Program): My name is Lauren Dever. I'm a clinical social worker, and I'm the coordinator of the Women Veterans' Homelessness Program at the V.A. Boston Healthcare System.

KAPLAN: Lauren Devor was one of the people at the V.A. who helped Rachel. The first thing she did - found her somewhere to live, subsidized housing where she could keep her kids.

Ms. DEVER: Now I'm seeing many more women that have actually left their children to go to war and then come back.

KAPLAN: Dever says this is a big change that in the last five to six years, she's seeing more and more female veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. The women are young, and many have kids.

Ms. DEVER: So you can well imagine a whole new area of work can be done around children feeling abandoned, other people taking on the parent role and then the mother coming back and trying to parent her children.

KAPLAN: Children present special challenges for a V.A. hospital, everything from the seemingly obvious like changing tables for babies in the bathrooms to the not so obvious, like providing V.A. shelters for homeless female veterans and their children.

It's hard enough for any soldier to ask for help. But without these services, female veterans like Rachel Caesar find it even harder.

Dr. EVE DAVISON (Clinical Psychologist, National Center for PTSD): Similar to male veterans, women who have served in the military are quite strong. They see themselves as soldiers, and it can be really, really hard to admit that you need support.

KAPLAN: That's Eve Davison. She's a clinical psychologist at the V.A. hospital in Boston and is another of the people who Rachel Caesar turned to. Davison, who also works with the National Center for PTSD, says she sees women like Caesar all the time.

She says it's not uncommon for patients with post-traumatic stress disorder to have screened positive for something called military sexual trauma. That's something of a catch-all term. It covers everything from sexual assault to sexual harassment.

According to the V.A., more than 48,000 women veterans screened positive for military sexual trauma just in 2008.

Ms. ERIN MULHALL (Director of Research, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America): Unfortunately, I think the general public for the most part is unaware of these numbers.

KAPLAN: Erin Mulhall is director of research for the IAVA, an advocacy group for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. She says the number is probably even higher because many women are afraid to report cases of harassment or assault. At the VA, the burden is not on the vet to document what happened to them.

Ms. MULHALL: It provides free care to any veteran that walks into V.A. medical centers that screens positive for military sexual trauma. It's bolstered training for its mental health professionals on MST and it also provides disability compensation for those that have developed some major health problems due to their trauma.

KAPLAN: Still, many women vets don't want to talk about sexual trauma. They don't want to admit it. They don't want to report it.

That's what happened to Rachel Caesar, who's only now beginning to let people know about what happened to her.

Ms. CAESAR: I was here, coming here for therapy, everything, doing what I had to do, but I was dying inside. And nobody here knew the real trauma I was going through.

KAPLAN: Back at the IHOP, Rachel and I finished up our conversation. She's trying to get a degree in accounting and had to get to class. As we walked through the parking lot, she saw two soldiers dressed in camouflage. Her face lit up, and she told me a story about what happened once when someone spotted the veterans license plates on her car.

Ms. CAESAR: I won't forget. I was driving someplace, and I have a car, and somebody had asked me: Oh, you're husband's in the Army? And I said, no, I'm the veteran. Because they saw the veteran's plate, they automatically assumed that my husband was in the military. People know women are in the military. But when you think of a veteran, it's always a male.

KAPLAN: Of course, Rachel Caesar is a veteran, too, and there are tens of thousands of women like her looking to the V.A. for help.

For NPR News. I'm Susan Kaplan.

SIEGEL: Tomorrow on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, an interview with the man who's trying to reinvent the V.A.: Secretary Eric Shinseki.

(Soundbite of music)

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