“My Son Is Not a Personal Problem”: How Women Veterans Are Treated as Second-Class Citizens

This article was published by TalkPoverty.org.

Major Jas Boothe is strong. The first time I met her she scooped me up and carried me, like an old-timey groom walking their bride over the threshold. That’s a bold move with a new acquaintance, but she has plenty of reasons to be self-assured: She’s a veteran, a cancer survivor, and she raised her oldest son by herself, while she was homeless.

After she spent the mid-2000s struggling to navigate the Veterans Affairs (VA) system, and finding the resources for homeless women — and particularly mothers — lacking, Boothe founded Final Salute to support other veterans struggling to convince the military that their roles as mothers and as soldiers were inseparable.

I spoke with Major Boothe about her life and the maze of challenges that women veterans face as members of the military as well as caregivers in their own families.

Kate Bahn: Can you tell us a brief overview of what you and your family went through when you were in the army and immediately after?

Jas Boothe: Life was definitely harder as a single mother in the army because it was used as ammunition against me. Everyone knows their body, and when I got cancer, I knew something was wrong. But I was told, “This is why women can’t hack it in the military,” “This is why women shouldn’t be in leadership positions,” “If you are not here training with your troops you look weak, they’re not going to respect you.” So I just said, “You know what, fine, I won’t go check on myself.” The military tells you suck it up and drive on.

It turns out I was dying. I had head, neck, and throat cancer. Good thing I was able to get to the doctor before I deployed, because there’s no telling how much worse it would have gotten a year or so later. But it’s things like that that let you know that we still have a very long way to go.

There were other instances. When my 6-month-old got sick — he was born with asthma — and the day care called me and said, “Hey, can you come get him?” I said, “Of course!” But my supervisor at the time was a man, and it took me so long to explain to him why I had to go. He said, “You know what? You need to keep your personal problems in order.” And I said, “My son is not a personal problem. He’s a baby and he’s sick.” I had to explain it in a different way for him. I said, “So you know when your children get sick, your wife goes and picks them up and alleviates that concern from you? I am the wife. So I have to go.”

By the time I got to my son, since it took me so long, he was already in the ambulance headed to the hospital, and I just felt so bad. Then when I got to the hospital my supervisor called me. I thought “Oh, he’s calling to check to see how my son is doing.” But he was calling me to ask if I was going to be at work the next day.

People look on the surface of things in the military, like post-traumatic stress disorder and things like that. But we still have underlying issues of how you’re treated strictly because of your gender.

After your cancer diagnosis, how did you balance your own care needs with your caregiving needs for your son? How did you navigate the mix of supports for veterans, the social safety net, help from your family?

Well, I had to suffer. The cancer and Hurricane Katrina left me homeless and jobless. At that point, I did need extensive rehabilitation and medical care, but I also had a child that I needed to take care of who needed food, clothes, a roof over his head. And I knew that if I focused on my health like I needed to, I wouldn’t be employable because I would have so much follow-up care and so many appointments. So I just said, “You know what, I have to take care of my kid — that’s my 50-meter target.”

There is no balance, especially when you’re a mom, especially when you’re a wife, and definitely when you’re a soldier. And so I put my health to the side, which probably hurt me in the long run, but I felt that it was needed.

As women we sacrifice for our children, we sacrifice for our job, and sometimes we even sacrifice for our love life. Even when looking for supportive services, I was turned away from the VA because of my gender — I was told they didn’t have any supportive housing services for women and their children, and they told me to go get welfare and food stamps because I had an illegitimate child. If there was a male veteran who had a child when he wasn’t married, I can guarantee you they wouldn’t call his child an illegitimate child. They probably would just refer to him as “your son.”

It’s that subliminal way of thinking of how we see women in this country. When a male veteran has a need or issue it’s America’s fault, America has to help him. When a woman veteran has a need or issue, she failed herself: “What did you do to get yourself in that position?” It’s the same kind of rape [culture] mentality. “What were you doing over there at 3 o’clock in the morning?” or “Why were you wearing that short skirt?” We are always dressed down whenever something traumatic has happened to us. But I’ve noticed that a lot of male veterans are not re-stigmatized just based on their gender.

What type of supports do you think would be helpful to other soldiers and veterans who are balancing their own care and needs as well as the care and needs of their families?

I think people just need to realize that putting you in uniform does not make you a robot, it does not make you beyond need, it does not make you beyond care. And although we say we want to serve veterans equally and we need to serve veterans equally, we can’t. Men and women do not have the same make-up. [Most] men don’t need mammograms, men don’t need pap smears, men don’t need OB-GYNs. I say that because not every [VA] has an OB-GYN or a place where you can get mammograms or pap smears and things like that.

I would love for you to tell us about the organization you started, Final Salute. What is the goal, how did you start it, and how did you get it off the ground?

I started Final Salute out of necessity. I didn’t just wake up one day and say, “Hey, I just would love to create a nonprofit.” I never saw myself creating a nonprofit. I saw myself as a soldier. But I also saw that women veterans were still being treated like second-class veterans, and no one was doing anything about it. Nobody was really even talking about it. I thought I was just that one soldier who slipped through the cracks. But there are tens of thousands of women veterans who are homeless. Women veterans are the fastest growing homeless population in America, and women veterans are also 250 percent more likely to commit suicide than any other women in American society.

Our mission is to provide homeless women veterans and children with vacant, suitable housing. And we have been able to raise $3 million to assist more than 36,000 women veterans. But there are still 55,000 homeless women veterans in America on any given day.

How do you balance both helping women have financial security and independence while making sure they can also still be mothers and wives and family members?

The key is keeping them with their children. The best thing you can do for a mother who’s struggling is keep her children with her. That way she can ensure that they’re safe, she can ensure that they’re taken care of. A lot of the VA shelters won’t do that: On my last count, I think out of 500 only 15 took in women with children. Some women are forced to give their children to friends and family members or even to the state because they can’t support them. Some women are forced to stay in domestic violence situations, because if they leave they won’t have anywhere to go with their child. Or some women sleep in their cars with their children. Homelessness isn’t just that guy on the park bench or in a tent city. Our primary means of survival are couch surfing, navigating from home to home until our welcome runs out so we can keep our children with us. We found that women thrive when their children are with them, and then once they know they are taking care of their responsibility as a mother, that allows them to focus on things like employment support or going back to school or getting that financial education and counseling they need.

We also noticed that [women need to] regain their tribes. When you are going through any situation, especially a hardship, tribe is important. In the military, we thrive in tribe because we are a unit; each member in the military becomes our family. When we watch people come into our transition home and regain that tribe and regain that sisterhood, we just see that drastic change in momentum in commitment from them.

I really appreciate hearing about all your work again. It’s so inspiring, and I think it’s going to really hit a lot of people.

Thank you for the opportunity.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.