February 2010

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Fighting for Our Fighting Women

When 17-year-old Lindsay Long enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps back in 1977, a woman's role in the military was far different than it is today.

"It was peacetime and we were perceived differently than the men. I was called a ‘Woman Marine,'" said Long, who just celebrated her 50th birthday. "Today, women in the Corps wear helmets and armored vests, carry weapons and serve on the front lines."

Long, a member of Knoxville, Tenn., Local 760 and a chemical operator at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, served just one year in the service. But the experience left her with a deeply ingrained empathy for women in the military and inspired her life-long dedication to improving the lives of female veterans.

"Women have been retiring from the service or coming home from war for decades with a set of challenges that male veterans don't have to face," Long said.

In September, U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki appointed her to a two-year term on the federal government's Advisory Committee on Women Veterans. The committee, formed by Congress in 1983, assesses how the VA deals with women's issues and recommends ways the agency can improve. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan mean a record number of female veterans are seeking assistance from an already overloaded VA health care system.

"There is an influx coming into the system because of the current conflicts overseas," Long said. "The VA isn't prepared and doesn't have enough manpower to serve the special needs of women."

Female veterans may need help dealing with post traumatic stress disorder or sexual trauma experienced in combat. In the past, victims of such trauma were assigned to group counseling sessions made up mostly of men. They also faced male colleagues skeptical about their service or injuries.

Female veterans can also face major obstacles as they try to return to civilian life at home with husbands and children. Many older or middle-aged women veterans may need counseling or health services from the VA, but are not aware they qualify for help.

"These women may have served during the World War II era. They think because they were never in combat that they aren't entitled to help," she said. "They need to know help is here for them no matter when they served."
The VA already has program coordinators specifically tasked with guiding women through the system. The agency also has plans to publish advertisements informing female vets about gender-specific services. Still, Long is convinced more needs to be done to make sure women get equal treatment and to address the growing problem of homelessness among female veterans.

"They need a safe place to go," she said.

Long, a proud part of Local 760 since 1999, is also an active member of the Women Marines Association, the East Tennessee Women Veterans Network and the Women Veterans of America. A breast cancer survivor, she is the program coordinator for Casting for Recovery of East Tennessee, a group that helps women cope with the emotional and physical toll the illness can take.

"We are extremely proud of her," said Local 760 Business Manager George Bove. "She's done really great work for our Brotherhood and for our nation's veterans."

Long's first official meeting as part of the advisory committee happens this month in Washington.

Her continuing goal is to reach out to female veterans, letting those who have sacrificed for their country know that the nation is prepared to give something back.

"I've always been proud of my military service, both active duty and as a veteran," she said. "I want to make sure the country today's women soldiers are fighting for will always be ready to serve them."

Knoxville, Tenn., Local 760 member Lindsay Long serves on a national women's veterans committee. She enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps in 1977 at age 17.