BY MARY WICOFF
DANVILLE — When Mickensy Ellis wears her badge at the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System, the veterans know she’s one of them. The identification badge says: I am a veteran.
It doesn’t matter that she’s a woman — they all share a common bond.
“It carries weight with the other veterans. They warm up,” said Ellis, who works as a psychology technician at the VA.
Ellis is among the growing number of female veterans. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the current projected percentage of U.S. veterans who are women is more than 8 percent. The figure was 4 percent in 1988.
With more women serving in the military, agencies such as the VA and Danville Area Community College are making sure they have services to meet women’s needs.
Brittany Trabaris, program manager of the Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation New Dawn office at the VA, said she’s seeing more female veterans.
In Fiscal Year 2012 (October 2011 to September 2012), the Illiana system served a total of 2,952 OEF/OIF/OND veterans in Danville and the five outpatient clinics. During that time, 256 women veterans used its services.
That’s an increase from the 165 women who were treated the previous fiscal year. About 8.6 percent the OEF/OIF/OND veterans served by the office in Fiscal Year 2011 were females.
Women’s role in the military has been changing during the years, Trabaris said, and they now face the same dangers as their male counterparts.
Ellis, 32, joined the Army in November 2008, and was deployed to Iraq in January 2011 for a year. As a behavioral health specialist, she was in charge of two clinics — one for coalition forces and another for the Iraqi detainees.
When she returned last December, she admitted, “I felt lost in the system at first.” She began using the services of the Women Veterans Health Program and also the OEF/OIF/OND program.
“They do a good job listening to my concerns and addressing them and getting treatment in a timely manner,” Ellis said of the programs. “I felt very well taken care of.”
Ellis worked in a medical unit in Iraq, so there were other females in positions in authority. She didn’t have any problems in that respect, except with the Iraqi detainees, who challenged her authority.
Ellis, however, has a background in corrections, adding, “I’m rather good at advocating for myself.”
Sexual harassment is a huge issue in the military, she said, and the Army has zero tolerance for it. There were sexual harassment issues in her unit, she said, but didn’t want to give details. She did treat a female soldier on her second deployment who had been raped.
“It is a serious reality over there,” she said. “It’s more common than you’d expect.”
When she returned home, her gender didn’t matter when it came to respect.
“The type of welcome when I returned home was overwhelming,” Ellis said. “People thank you for your service.”
The job search was stressful, however, she said, adding, “It was tough making the transition to home and not having something (to return to).”
In fact, the jobless rate among veterans is higher than the national rate. Citing Bureau of Labor statistics, Trabaris said the unemployment rate for Gulf War Era II (Sept. 11, 2001 to present) veterans was 10 percent last month.
After six months, Ellis was fortunate to land a position in April at the VA, where she had served as a job shadow in 2005.
“I’m so happy to be here. This is my dream job,” she said. “I feel blessed to work with this population.”
As a reservist, she drills with a unit out of Indianapolis, and knows she can be deployed or sent on a relief effort anytime.
When veterans return, so much information is thrown at them, Trabaris said, and it’s difficult to absorb everything. Her office promotes the Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program for National Guard and Reserve members, their families and communities. The program connects them with resources throughout the deployment cycle.
At Yellow Ribbon events, service members and their families can access information on health care, education/training opportunities, financial and legal benefits.
Trabaris said her office presents information every 30 days and 60 days to National Guard members.
She makes sure the women veterans receive information on the Women Veterans Health Care. Information on resources is tailored to each individual, regardless of gender.
“We treat everyone as unique,” she said.
At DACC, Carla Boyd agreed that veterans are treated as individuals, and she tries to help with their specific needs.
Boyd is director of career employment services and also oversees the Veterans’ Multipurpose Employment Center. She plans to apply for a grant to hire a director for that center, once the state begins accepting applications.
Boyd said 247 veterans have received some assistance with supportive services and career advice over the past three years. (That number does not reflect the overall number of veterans who have used the services.) Of those, women make up a small percentage — maybe 3-5 percent, she said.
Boyd said she is seeing more women using the center’s services. However, the number is low, she said, because women tend to make easier transitions into careers when they return from service, and stay more in line with what they’ve done in the past. Men tend to make more extreme career changes, and that might slow down the job search.
The employment center offers career information, assessments, and links with employers, but no longer offers supportive services, such as computer classes, due to a grant ending.
“We help people transition to the next stage of life,” she said of the career employment office, which is open to students, community members and veterans.
Boyd said she’s seeing more women applying for the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program, which began in July. It offers up to 12 months of training assistance ($1,473 per month) to unemployed veterans.
The program is limited to a certain number of participants across the country. “Every veteran we’ve helped has been able to get in this program,” she said.
To qualify, veterans must be at least 35, but no older than 60; unemployed; not have a dishonorable discharge; not be eligible for any other VA education benefit program; not be in receipt of VA compensation due to unemployability; and not be enrolled in a federal or state job training program.
A veteran does not need to be a DACC student in order to use the services, which are free.
At the VA, contact the Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation New Dawn office at 554-4315.
At Danville Area Community College, contact the Veterans’ Multipurpose Employment Center at 443-8593.