Minnesota's Veterans: The Road Back Home
Trista Matascastillo, Chair of Minnesota Women Veterans Initiative Working Group
A former Marine, Trista Matascastillo was an Army military police commander in the Minnesota National Guard. She chairs the Minnesota Women Veterans Initiative Working Group, also works full time in community outreach for Habitat for Humanity and is on the board of Grace After Fire, a national organization for women veterans.
Comments by Trista Matascastillo
Question: What kinds of challenges are facing women veterans that men might not experience in the same way?
Historically, women veterans haven't always acknowledged themselves as veterans. It started way back in World War II and earlier, when women were brought into service during time of war, but as soon as the war was over they were discharged. It was like, we don't need you anymore, go home, go back to being a wife and a mother. So even though technically they are veterans, they didn't consider themselves to be veterans because they just backfilled. And there is a stigma while we're in service, because we have the combat exclusion law, so technically all our women veterans aren't in combat. But we know in reality they are. Then they are expected to go home to be wives and mothers, and to be okay.
The other thing that we get a lot is, "well, you don't look like a veteran," which we joke about often. I don't know if you know anything about veterans, but typically — especially the older generations — they wear these jackets with patches all over, or hats with pins all over, to say "look, I'm a veteran." So we've been joking that we need a women veteran's hat, so we can tell what we look like. It's one of those things that sounds really silly, but it's very true.
Or, if we go to the VA for services, instantly somebody says, "oh, you must be here with your husband." Because let's face it, 26 percent of veterans are women, which means we are greatly outnumbered. So there's a kind of stigma, and it's uncomfortable.
Question: How is your group working to change these perceptions and end the stigma?
We started meeting about a year and a half ago, and we addressed some issues by, first of all, acknowledging women as veterans, and changing the vocabulary. For instance, we went to several homeless shelters. There are different services for homeless veterans, but nobody ever asks a woman if she's a veteran, because it's assumed she's not. So we've just kind of educated them to say, you know, we would like you to ask everybody — not whether they're a veteran — but have they ever served in the military. Start there.
The other thing we found is that there are 23,000 women veterans in Minnesota, and only 1,500 of them utilize the services of the VA. Why is that? Its primarily because they are geared to men. It's an outreach issue — a woman may not know they have services. And women are generally more resourceful, so if they need to go to a doctor, they go to a doctor; they don't wait, and they go to their own practitioner. That's not necessarily a problem, but we wanted to make sure that they aren't missing out on services that are due them. We wanted to make sure it's by choice, and not by not knowing.
We did a survey and sent it out statewide, and the common theme that came up is, the VA is very uncomfortable. Even though we have a women's clinic, you have to navigate the whole VA Hospital. It's a very large place and a little confusing, and you can easily get lost. The women's clinic is in a shared wing with the general practice clinic, so men and women are sharing the waiting room — which generally speaking isn't a bad thing, until you factor in the fact that one in three women veterans have experienced military sexual trauma.
The other thing is that at the VA clinic, when you go through the gynecology — which is never fun for anybody — the comp and pen (compensation and pension) doctors are all male doctors. There are women doctors in the women's clinic, once you are assigned. But when you do your initial claim, they're male doctors, they're male gynecologists, and you've got to get through the male doctors first —you don't have a choice. Some women are totally okay with having a male doctor, but others — especially ones who have really experienced trauma — are not okay with it. And it's like, do I really want to put myself through this, if I already have perhaps another issue, a mental health issue, a military sexual trauma issue?
Question: So your group is working to change that and provide women with more choices?
Yes. We are working with our legislators and elected officials to bring light to it. We are also working with the VA Hospital. We started what we call the "Battle Buddy" program at the VA. So if a woman veteran is setting up her first appointment or a follow-up appointment, and she is just a little scared or can't navigate, she can call us — we have women veterans who are trained and will go to her appointments with her. We will sit with her in the waiting room, and make sure she knows how to get from one place to another, and just to be there with her. It's very helpful, especially if it's your first time.
Another thing we do, once a month, is hold what we call a "coffee talk" at a coffee shop, for women veterans to come and talk and share their stories, and to be veterans, without having to hold back because there are men in the room. It's a resource to share the issues and make them aware of what's going on.
Question: You mentioned the group was formed to address issues specific to women veterans, and you've mentioned family. Men come back, and they have to rejoin their families too. How is that experience different for women?
My husband is also a veteran, and a lot of the issues are the same. But if we don't address the fact that roles for men and women in society are different, then we are pretending something that's not real. There are always exceptions, but when a mother comes home, she is expected to be nurturing and get right back into her role as a mom, and go back to doing mom things. Dad has a little different role, for the most part.
And it seems that men, generally speaking, will have a wife or a significant other who is also helping to nurture the child. So when they come back, they have a little more time to adjust or get integrated, and if they need to step away, well, mom's there. Mothers come back and it's, "Okay, mom, you're supposed to be able to do all this." If the kids were with grandma or with another care provider, they go home and now there you are. Another thing is, we have a higher rate of single mothers as opposed to single fathers, and so again, that's where that issue becomes a little more difficult.
Question: We've been hearing a lot lately about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Does it affect women veterans to the same extent it affects men?
Absolutely. We hear about it a lot, and our motto is, PTSD isn't a man's disease, it affects everybody. There are some reports that say that women actually suffer from it more — I don't know if that's true, I would say it's probably equal. But in addition, an experience that men generally don't have is, they don't have the sexual trauma part. One in three women veterans have experienced military sexual trauma — add that to that situation, and we've got a big problem.
Question: Does your group have any recommendations or proposals for legislation?
I am actively part of the Military Action Group at the Capitol, a nonpartisan group of veterans that come together to work on legislation. We are working on some legislation, and one of the biggest things we are working on is making sure that the vocabulary in a bill is inclusive of women veterans, and not exclusive. So as we go through the language, it will be vetted to make sure it is inclusive.
Question: What challenges do women veterans face in finding employment and housing? Are they comparable to those that male veterans face?
Yes, with the exception that there is housing available for male veterans, and housing is not available for female veterans. For instance, the Veterans Home down by the VA Hospital is for homeless male veterans — there are no beds or rooms for female veterans. We've looked at this issue a lot. The problem is, how do you fill a house and keep it filled — and we don't really want to, we want them to get back on their feet.
The other thing we find is that women are typically more resourceful, or when they mess up, they don't burn all their bridges. So even if they have mental health or other issues, we are relationship creatures, and we at least manage a relationship with someone. Women tend to stay with family, or with friends, or sleep on someone's couch. Or get into a relationship, probably unhealthy, abusive, but they are considered to have a place to stay at night.
We can't remove them or help them in those situations, because they don't necessarily self identify, and quite frankly, the services are not available. The other issue is that women typically are single mothers or have children, especially women veterans. Housing for homeless women with children is difficult to find, and it is nonexistent for veterans.
Question: There seems to be increasing recognition that when a service member is away or experiences stress when he or she returns, there are consequences for spouses as well. Is that an issue your organization is concerned with?
We are all inclusive. We have a few people who are not veterans, but they have sons, daughters or husbands who are veterans, and they have found that they can come and talk to us and we can relate. Because even though we are women veterans, most women veterans are married to veterans — it becomes a way of life, you marry another service member. So we can relate on two aspects, not only for ourselves, but as a spouse or a mother. [Editor's note:Trista Matascastillo is married to Hector Matascastillo, who is also interviewed for this issue.]
Question: You were an Army military police commander. Is there anything we should tell people about that experience and how it shaped your view of these issues?
I actually was in the Navy first, and then went through the commissioning process in the Marines. At that time, my youngest child was diagnosed as severely autistic, so I had a special needs child, and I was a single mom. In the Marine Corps, that doesnwork out very well. So I left the Marines and joined the National Guard and then I was full-time with the National Guard for the last five years.
I commanded the MP company last, and prior to that I was an air defense officer. I've personally experienced military sexual trauma when I was younger, as an enlisted person in the Navy, and it always affected me. When I was a commander is probably when it became most obvious — because at that point, I think about 50 percent of my soldiers were female soldiers. And I can't remember once in the whole time in my command that I didn't have a report of some kind of sexual harassment, military sexual trauma, rape, or something of that nature. In the whole time I commanded, it seemed like we had an open investigation repeatedly. That's when I said, we have to do something, truly this needs to stop. That's why it became such a passion for me.