latimes.com — After graduating from Sycamore High School in Tustin, Wendy Clausen wanted to do something big. She wanted to be a Marine.
Military service was going to be her life and her career. But shortly before completing boot camp, she injured her pelvis during the Crucible, a grueling three-day physical and mentalmarathon that tests Marine recruits on everything they’ve learned.
Despite the injury, she continued to train and worked in logistics while stationed at the Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, Calif., and later at the Marine Corps Air Station in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, where her husband was based.
Clausen started experiencing pain in her lower back in 2008. She was told she had severe inflammation at the L3 and L5 vertebrae and underwent the first of two procedures in early 2010, about a year before her enlistment contract was to end. That’s when things started spiraling downward.
Shortly after she had the first procedure, her doctor and commanding officer agreed that Clausen needed to be on convalescence leave, and her end-of-service date should be pushed forward so she would have time to recuperate from the second operation.
But according to Clausen, the new date was never entered into the computer system and she believed she was being pushed out of the Marine Corps for medical reasons after 3 1/2 years. Meanwhile, she scrambled to get all of her paperwork submitted to the Department of Veteran Affairs before packing her bags and flying back to Orange County. It was a devastating blow — her dreams of a being a career Marine now reduced to a blur in her rear-view mirror. And her frustrations were just beginning.
At 22, Clausen was starting all over again. Her husband was still in Hawaii, and she was back home with no support system and no one to help guide her through the VA’s tangled bureaucracy.
“My transition coming out was really tough because I didn’t have a way to follow up on any of the medical treatment,” she remembers. “It took a year and five months to hear back from the VA.”
Clausen’s story is not unusual. “Woman are not immediately recognized as having served in the military and consequently may be overlooked or not considered when seeking services or benefits,” said Lindsey Sin, deputy secretary of Women Veterans Affairs in Sacramento and a panelist at the first Orange County Women Veterans Leadership Summit, which was held Nov. 20 at Irvine Valley College. “When accessing services, women often request gender-specific accommodations and may have a difficult time receiving them.”
She added, noting that women are now serving in more dangerous roles than ever: “They are twice as likely to develop post traumatic stress syndrome than men. This could be related to combat, sexual assault, harassment or another traumatic event.”
Sin said that on average, female veterans tend to be younger than male veterans, so they have unique needs that may not have been the traditional focus of veterans services over the last decade.
A study conducted by the California Department of Veterans Affairs in 2013 found that female veterans were more likely than their male counterparts to have a service-connected disability, didn’t use their state and federal benefits as often as their male counterparts and didn’t participate in veteran-sponsored organizations and events.
“They want to disconnect from the memories that may haunt them after the military,” said Nancy Montgomery, director of Health, Wellness and Veterans at Irvine Valley College. “They leave a unit of camaraderie and return to civilian life with no girlfriends and no social groups, and we essentially cannot find them in society.”
While all separating and retiring military members are required to go through the Defense Department’s Transition Assistance Program (TAP), and those with a service-connected disability must attend an additional workshop, any follow-through after that is entirely up to the veterans. Unless they enroll at a college, university or vocational training program that provides veteran resources, the women who need help the most may be tough to locate. Of the 113 community colleges in California, about 60 have resource centers for veterans on campus.
After reviewing the government studies and seeing firsthand the low participation among female veterans, Montgomery, a career healthcare advocate and fundraiser, saw an opportunity to try to help female veterans reconnect. Her effort culminated in the inaugural Orange County Women Veterans Leadership Summit.
“The goal is to expand the connection to these female veterans, so we’re going to invite them back for more workshops and recreational-type opportunities,” said Montgomery, who explained that she is relying on grant money to pay for the events.
More than 100 female and a half-dozen male veterans attended the four-hour program, which included introductory remarks from Montgomery and Bobby McDonald, chairman of the Orange County Veterans Advisory Council, two panel discussions and a motivational speaker.
Besides Sin, panelists included Antoinette Balta, president and co-founder of the nonprofit Veterans Legal Institute in Santa Ana, Nancy Sumner, who serves on the Board of Governors of the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, and Leona Wheeler, executive director of the volunteer-led AMVETS.
Each shared her experience of what it was like to transition back into civilian life from the military.
“We need to feel empowered and excited again because there are so few women veterans,” Sumner said. “It’s about taking care of yourself, listening to others who have made it through tough times and advanced in their careers.”
Veterans, who traveled from as far north as Sacramento, Pasadena, Glendale, Los Angeles and Long Beach, said they were encouraged by what they heard.
“The best part is that there is an action plan to continue the camaraderie even after the initial summit,” said Megan Rodriguez, an Air Force veteran and district representative for state Sen. Carol Liu (D-La Canada Flintridge).
Claudia White, who served for eight years in the Air Force, was seeking advice on how to get her service-connected disability upgrade finished online and was hoping to find a counselor at the event who could help her.
“I like the energy in the room — the motivational aspects more so than listening to someone describing what benefits are available. The message here is more uplifting for women,” White said.
Irvine Valley College student Lindsey Van Petten, who is in the Army Reserves, said, “I’m building confidence as far as what I can provide for myself and what I can do for others.”
Some were there gathering information to take back to their college resources centers. Navy veteran Maggie Castillo, who attends Pasadena City College and works at the college’s veterans club, said, “Being here makes you feel like you’re not alone.”