Homeless women veterans in Asheville “don’t get what men get,” said Alyce Knaflich. The retired staff sergeant spoke March 29 at the Tribute to Women Veterans event, a fundraiser she organized as a way to build awareness and get female vets the help they need. About 30 people attended the tribute, which was hosted by Jubilee! Community Church and honored such local residents as World War II veteran Stella Stepherd and Army veterans Brenda Ploss and Darleen Minton.
“Women veterans are the fastest-growing population of homeless in America,” said Knaflich. Yet in Asheville, she knows of just 10 beds set aside at Steadfast House for women vets, compared to 200 for men at the Veterans Restoration Quarters (both facilities are run by the Asheville Buncombe Community Christian Ministry). “Ten beds in this community is insufficient,” said Knaflich, who has been homeless. Our “current community facilities are inadequate in providing education, transportation [and] nutrition and often [have] overcrowded conditions,” she asserted.
At Steadfast House, women vets share space with homeless women and children, Knaflich noted.
From 1975 to 1994, she was stationed in Alabama, Virginia, Texas, Germany and Korea, serving in such positions as a Petroleum Laboratory Specialist and Telecommunications Operator. Like many female veterans, Knaflich was assaulted while in service. After 10 years of living with 30 percent disability pay and working in trade to so that she could park her vehicle in campgrounds, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Knaflich now volunteers locally in several ways, such as chairing the Buncombe County Veterans Council and co-founding the WNC Women Warriors group.
Lynn Marlow, a counselor and licensed clinical psychologist who provides support for female and male veterans at the local Charles George Veterans Affairs Medical Center, offered a few statistics about abuse in the U.S. military. “Of all women treated by the VA, one in four reports being sexually harassed or assaulted [in training or in active duty]. Of all men treated by the VA, one in 100 reports being sexually harassed or assaulted.”
National awareness on the issue of sexual assault in the military is growing — and has a name: military sexual trauma. The 2012 documentary The Invisible War features interviews with survivors of rape, sexual assault and harassment. And a March 31 article in The Week magazine reports, “Female soldiers today are 180 times more likely to be sexually assaulted by a fellow soldier than killed by an enemy.” The article also provides this statistic: “In 2011, there were around 3,000 official cases of military sexual assault, but a report … put[s] the actual annual number at 19,000 or more. An anonymous survey of more than 1,100 women who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, conducted last year by the Department of Veterans Affairs, found that almost half said they had been sexually harassed, and nearly one quarter said they’d been sexually assaulted” (”The Military’s Sexual Assault Epidemic”).
Women can take the lead in addressing the problem, said Knaflich and others who spoke at the Asheville tribute.
Shepherd, who served as an anti-aircraft gun technician in the British Army’s Royal Artillery during World War II, discussed her experiences and emphasized the importance of supporting fellow soldiers.
From the late 1970s through the 1990s, Ploss served in active duty in the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Branch, then the U.S. Army Reserves as an Adjutant General. Raised in a military family, she was told that she “could do anything and be anything.” In a tearful address, she asked the audience to stand up for women soldiers, especially those who need help. “We are here tonight to raise funds and find a safe home for women veterans.”
Minton, who served in the U.S. Army and Army Reserve from 1980-2002, spoke frankly about facing sexual harassment and overcoming homelessness. Like Knaflich, she volunteers at the local VA.
Meta Commerse, the founding director of Story Medicine Asheville, talked about the importance of writing and sharing stories as part of the recovery process. “Every person’s story matters, each voice deserves an audience; this is our most valuable medicine.”
With these and other women at her side, Knaflich repeated a simple message: Local women vets need their own shelter and better treatment. They’re not treated fairly, relative to male veterans, she claimed. “They are not getting the benefits they earned. Men are prioritized.”
Determined to raise the money needed to “get [women veterans] their own house,” Knaflich said, “Women veterans are veterans too.”
To donate to this local initiative, please visit www.AMVETSNC.org, and click on Women Veterans. Co-sponsors of the March 29 tribute included WOVEN Women Veterans NEtwor and Western North Carolina Women Warriors.