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As Veterans Day approaches Thursday, there are over 2 million women veterans in the United States, with more than 25,000 in Massachusetts, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs estimates those numbers will continue to grow over the next 20 years as more young women choose a military career.

“I loved my Navy career,” said Cecile Gomes of Brockton, a veteran who is now an investigator and assistant veterans service officer. “I am Cape Verdean and was born in Africa. My family came here when I was 6 years old. I was proud to volunteer and give back to this country that has given my family so much.”

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Since women have never been drafted for the US military, “every woman who has ever served her country did so as a volunteer,” said Elizabeth Estabrooks, deputy director of the Center for Women Veterans, which monitors and coordinate the VA’s administration of health care, benefits, services, and programs for women veterans.

In 2017, women represented 16 percent of the overall active duty force, up from just 1 percent in 1970, according to Pew Research.

The VA estimates that women will make up 18 percent of the total military population in 20 years. These changes are creating significant shifts in the needs of the veteran population and how services are provided.

“Many women take great pride in wearing a uniform and serving their country,” Estabrooks said. “A military career can empower a woman and many appreciate the sense of personal achievement, belonging, and camaraderie.”

Nevertheless, Estabrook said, women have more significant transition issues. The Center for Women Veterans serves as “an advocate for cultural transformation and to raise awareness of the responsibility to treat women veterans with dignity.”

Navy veteran Crystal Chandler is a student at Northern Essex Community College. She shows her 7-month-old son, August, a globe in the college library.
Navy veteran Crystal Chandler is a student at Northern Essex Community College. She shows her 7-month-old son, August, a globe in the college library.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

“I do miss the Navy,” said Crystal Chandler of Haverhill, who served on three aircraft carriers, met her husband, and had her first child while in the Navy. “I enjoyed the structure, the hands-on work, and the travel. Now as the mother of a 3-year-old and 7-month-old, I am building a new life and going back to school at Northern Essex Community College through the GI Bill.”

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The VA has found that female veterans are at high risk for homelessness, especially if they live in poverty. These veterans are more than twice as likely to be homeless as other women and more than three times as likely if they are at risk or in poverty.

Despite local and national programs and services to help women access their veterans benefits and to assist with their transition back to a civilian world, the connections do not always work.

“Massachusetts is unique when it comes to veterans’ services,” said Karen Tyler, Veterans Service Officer for the Eastern Essex District and a US Army veteran. “There is a veterans service officer for every city and town. Yet there is an ongoing challenge to connect with younger veterans — men and women.”

In addition, the Women Veterans’ Network of Massachusetts works to bring awareness to the needs of women veterans and serves as a resource to meet those needs.

“Isolation is a problem and the pandemic made it worse,” said Estabrooks. “It is harder to meet other women veterans, especially if you are busy raising a family. Women veterans’ groups have sprung up on social media as a way to connect. Colleges have veterans’ resource centers. Women that go back to school may connect on campus.”

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Navy veteran Evelin Herrera-Robinson of Framingham is working on her second degree at MassBay Community College. As the mother of three kids under 4, she has little time to connect with other women veterans.

“My husband has a Navy career and is away on duty a lot,” said Herrera-Robinson. “Sometimes it feels like I am a single parent.”

Navy veteran Evelin Herrera-Robinson is working on her second degree at MassBay Community College.
Navy veteran Evelin Herrera-Robinson is working on her second degree at MassBay Community College.Handout

Like Gomes, Herrera-Robinson came to this country as an immigrant.

“I loved being in the military,” said Herrera-Robinson. “My family came here from Colombia when I was 6 years old and I was proud to join the military and give back to this country that gave my family such a great opportunity. It was sexual harassment that led to my decision to leave the Navy.”

As veteran service officers, or VSOs, Gomes and Tyler are well aware that Military Sexual Trauma — sexual assault or sexual harassment experienced during military service — is an issue that too many women face.

“Speaking about Military Sexual Trauma with a female VSO can be easier,” said Tyler. “Sometimes I work with women veterans from neighboring communities [where there is a male VSO] to discuss sexual trauma issues because they are more comfortable speaking with another woman.”

“Finding a support group or network where you can talk with other women veterans about experiencing sexual trauma is hard,” said Gomes.

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Estabrooks notes that Military Sexual Trauma includes sexual harassment, assault, and rape, and that treatment for this trauma is available whether or not the veteran has an official disability. She encourages anyone that has experienced sexual trauma in the military to reach out to the Center for Women Veterans to find the help and resources they need.

“There are a lot of positives to a military career for women,” stressed Estabrooks. “Women veterans feel a sense of pride having served their country. There is a lifelong connection to other veterans no matter when you served or what branch. Women veterans share a can-do attitude.”

Gomes joined the Navy “to get out of Brockton and to see the world.”

“Well I have come full circle — I am right back where I started,” said Gomes, who served four years on active duty and 22 years in the reserves, including being mobilized after 9/11. “I did see the world, I got money to get my college degree, and I found my calling. I am back here in my hometown — here to help other veterans. I have seen positive changes for women veterans, especially in health care services, but I know we can do better.”

Linda Greenstein can be reached at greensteinlm@gmail.com.