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Over 2.2 million women living today have served in the United States (U.S.) Armed Forces— approximately 2 million veterans1 and another 200,000 currently on active duty.2 Women are a rapidly growing segment of the U.S. military population, representing 9% of veterans, 15% of active duty personnel, 19% of National Guard and Reserves, and 20% of new recruits.2 Women are also one of the fastest growing groups of new users of health services provided by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
Nearly 70 years have passed since women were first recognized as members of the U.S. Armed Forces. As roles for women in the military have expanded, more women have been able to enjoy the career, financial, and personal benefits of military service. In one study, three-quarters of women veterans reported their military service was useful in preparing them for a career, roughly 90% said the military helped their personal growth and self-confidence, and 97% felt proud to have served in the military.3 Hundreds of thousands of women are using veterans’ educational benefits to pursue higher education or vocational training, and research shows women veterans tend to earn higher incomes than civilian women.4,5
Women’s experiences in the military and challenges of adjusting to life after the military differ from men in important ways. Despite decades of progress, some cultural and institutional elements of the military remain limiting for women.6 Women in the military advance in rank more slowly than men and are underrepresented in high ranking positions.7 Nearly half of women who serve are mothers, and many must balance their military career with caring for children.5 Research documents prevalent housing instability and workforce transition challenges for women veterans.3 While the exact prevalence of military sexual trauma is unknown, research suggests that approximately one in three women who have served have experienced sexual harassment or assault during their service.8
Women who have served in the military also differ from men who have served, demographically and in health outcomes. Compared to men, women who have served are more likely to be racial/ethnic minorities, younger, and more educated, yet they have a similar or higher burden of certain physical and mental illnesses.4 Similarly, research shows that women who have served have different demographic profiles than civilian women. Despite being more highly educated and having higher incomes, women with military service face a greater burden of many health concerns than civilian women.3
The last decade has seen a growth in research addressing the health of women veterans and women currently serving. However, important knowledge gaps remain on the leading health concerns facing these women. First, the large majority of health-related studies have focused exclusively on patients utilizing VA services, with very few being population-based or broadly focused. Second, many have concentrated on specific health topics, very often addressing severe mental illness such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And finally, more recent research has focused on military women in the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Much less is known about the overall health of women who have served, including data on subpopulations and trends over time across health outcomes, behaviors, clinical care, and other well-being measures. In addition, there are few, if any, resources that monitor, regularly report, and compare trends on the broader health of women who have served.
In 2016, America’s Health Rankings® launched the Health of Those Who Have Served Report, providing a national baseline portrait and data resource to monitor the health of men and women who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces. Findings from this report revealed that women who have served face mental, behavioral, and health concerns distinct from both men who have served and women who have not, pointing to the need to develop a deeper understanding of the health of military and veteran women.
This edition of the America’s Health Rankings® Health of Women Who Have Served Report provides a national overview of the health and well-being of women who have ever served in the U.S. Armed Forces. It is intended as a resource for advocates, policymakers, government officials, and constituents at the national, state, and local levels to:
  • Describe and compare the health of women who have served to those who have not served across 23 measures of behaviors, health outcomes, clinical care, community and environment, and policy, overall and by age and race/ethnicity.
  • Provide a benchmark to monitor trends over time for women who have served, overall and in comparison to those who have not served.
  • Build awareness of the breadth of health issues facing women who have served and how those issues compare to civilian women.
  • Stimulate dialogue and action to inform health priorities and interventions targeting women who have served, recognizing that this group is a fast-growing segment of the military, veteran, and general U.S. population with distinct health needs.
  • Inform areas of future research to fill important knowledge gaps on the physical, behavioral, and mental health issues facing women who have served.

[1] U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Women Veterans Report: The Past, Present, and Future of Women Veterans. February 2017. Available at: https://www.va.gov/vetdata/docs/SpecialReports/Women_Veterans_2015_Final.pdf
[2] U.S. Department of Defense. 2015 Demographics: Profile of the Military Community. Available at: http://download.militaryonesource.mil/12038/MOS/Reports/2015-Demographics-Report.pdf
[3] Patten E and Parker K. Women in the U.S. Military Growing Share. Distinctive Profile. Pew Social & Demographic Trends, December 2011. Available at: http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/files/2011/12/women-in-the-military.pdf
[4] National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics. America’s Women Veterans: Military Service History and VA Benefit Utilization. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Washington, DC, November 2011. Available at: https://www.va.gov/vetdata/docs/specialreports/final_womens_report_3_2_12_v_7.pdf
[5] Nanda N et al. Women Veteran Economic and Employment Characteristics. U.S. Department of Labor, Washington, DC, February 2016. Available at: https://www.dol.gov/asp/evaluation/completed-studies/WomenVeteranEconomicandEmploymentCharacteristics.pdf
[6] Murphy FM and Hans S. Women Veterans: The Long Journey Home. Disabled American Veterans, 2014. Available at: https://www.dav.org/wp-content/uploads/women-veterans-study.pdf
[7] Mulhall E. Women Warriors: Supporting She ‘Who has Borne the Battle.’ Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, October 2009. Available at: http://media.iava.org/IAVA_WomenWarriors_2009.pdf
[8] Wilson LC. The Prevalence of Military Sexual Trauma: A Meta-analysis. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 2016; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/1524838016683459
[9] Lehavot K et al., Health Indicators for Military, Veteran, and Civilian Women. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2012; 42(5):473-480.

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