By Kimberly Olson
Colonel, USAF (ret)
CEO/President of Grace After Fire
For fewer and fewer Americans, Memorial Day is a personal opportunity to recall the sacrifices their family members in the armed forced have made to keep our country safe.
The ties between America’s civilian population and the military are stretching thin, according to recent studies. Less than one percent of all Americans today have served on active duty.
While three-quarters of Americans ages 50 or older say they had an immediate family member who is or has been in the military, only one-third ages 18-29 can make that claim. For the younger generation, it’s increasingly possible that family relative is a mother, sister or wife.
For women, joining the military has never been more attractive. In 2010, 15 percent of the U.S. military were women. Today, 20 percent of new recruits are women.
The reasons why women join up are similar to men – patriotism, adventure, a job with benefits, an opportunity for tuition-free higher education, and pride. The opportunity to serve as equals is one reason why women military cheered the Pentagon’s decision earlier this year to officially open combat duty to women troops. This decision also meant greater pay and promotion opportunities for women.
As a retired officer, I support the commitment to achieve women’s economic and social equality, I applaud this decision and recognize it as another step in acknowledging women’s leadership capabilities and contributions to our country.
Recent Congressional hearings on rape in the military have made all too clear how far military leaders must go to create equal opportunity for female soldiers. Violence against women in the military impacts force readiness, robs the military of talented female troops and leaders, and is an affront to the honor of those who wear the uniform. There must be absolutely no tolerance for this behavior or the behavior of commanders who create these hostile environments. The guilty must be punished and those entrusted to lead America’s sons and daughters held accountable.
Not surprisingly, women are the fastest growing group within the Veteran population. While the Veterans Administration works to accommodate the needs of 1.8 million women vets, several gaps remain. Only 14 percent of women vets access VA healthcare benefits because women’s care is fragmented and inadequate childcare is available. Sadly, 40 percent of VA homeless shelters cannot accept women veterans.
I urge our elected officials to make sure the VA supports women as well as men veterans. I urge citizens to show their appreciation to Veterans by donating their time, talent, and treasure. Give to local non-profits helping women veterans, celebrate the women veterans in your community, and spend time volunteering with and for women. And as we put out our American flags for Memorial Day weekend, let’s give a special salute to women past and present in the U.S. military.
Kimberly Olsen is a member of the BPW Foundation’s Women Joining Forces: Closing Ranks, Opening Doors® Advisory Council.