How research at Queen’s is helping female veterans

The Servicewomen Salute Portal for Resources and Research at Queen’s will create first-ever online space for women veterans

Female veterans struggle to find support communities following military release.
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Brittany Laramie joined the Canadian Armed Forces in the summer of 2008. At age 17, she was the first woman in her family to serve in the military. 

A regular force infantrywoman, Laramie served in the second battalion Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry. “I had a long family history of military service. That was why I joined, to continue that family legacy,” she said in an interview with The Journal

In 2010, Laramie was on a domestic operation in Whistler, British Columbia. While she was performing security at the Winter Olympics, she sustained a spinal injury in a car accident. Following surgery and nerve damage, Lamarie left the military on medical release in 2015. 

Four years later, she’s pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration at St. Lawrence College in Kingston.

“I’m having a good time with it,” she said. “My transition, I think, has been a pretty decent one. But it would have been nice to have more access or information about more female-centred programs and opportunities.”

In October, Laramie attended a focus group for female veterans hosted by the Servicewomen Salute Portal for Resources and Research at Queen’s. 

After receiving a five-year funding commitment from Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) last year, the Servicewomen Salute Portal for Resources and Research at Queen’s is building an online resource portal for Canadian servicewomen transitioning to civilian life and women veterans currently living in Canadian communities.

“I think once it goes, it’s really going to fly,” Laramie said about the program.

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Rosemary Park is a female veteran who, after 20 years of service, is no stranger to research about women in the Canadian military. 

Park is currently managing the Servicewomen Salute Portal project, working alongside members of the Queen’s history department like associate professor of Canadian military history Allan English, who is the project’s principal investigator.

While serving from 1972 to 1993, Parkswas the principal researcher in a project to determine whether women could be placed in military roles closer to combat. 

“During that time, I saw that there were large difficulties being faced by the servicewomen in gaining acceptance, and large difficulties on the other side by those who didn’t want servicewomen to have expanded roles,” she said in an interview with The Journal.

Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) didn’t start publishing female-specific data until 2016, which Park said caught her eye because military statistics usually combined both men and women’s experiences.

“The research was suggesting significant difficulties being experienced by women veterans living in the Canadian community as a result of their military service,” Park said. “That includes higher rates of suicide, depression, PTSD, homelessness, and significantly lower income after [women] leave the military.”

In December of 2017, Park helped run the Canada 150 Servicewomen’s Salute dinner, which gathered 400 female veterans into one space. While there, she met researchers from the Canadian Institute for Military and Veteran Health Research (CIMVHR), which operates out of Kingston Hall at Queen’s University, and who later helped her kickstart the portal project. 

“I was just coming into wanting to see how I could support servicewomen’s lived experiences as veterans,” Park said. “After you get out, I can confirm you disappear. You take off your uniform and you disappear into a civilian community. And it’s tough.”

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Laramie said she grew up in the military, joining when she was only 17.

“When you get out, you don’t know who you are anymore. You’re like, okay, who do I want to be? What are my dreams? I don’t know. There’s a big, I don’t know, bubble that pops around your head.”

When Laramie was released from the military in 2015, she was assigned a case manager who helped her access the resources she needed to transition to civilian life. 

Not every veteran in transition is assigned a case manager, but because of Laramie’s injuries and her military husband’s complex PTSD, her family was considered a high priority.

“Based on stories I had heard from other people who got out of the military and the absolute hell they went through with Veterans Affairs, I was very prepared to do my homework and go through policy, which I did. I was very fortunate that my case worker met me on that level,” Laramie said.

She said her case manager fought for her to have a good transition to civilian life, and that while not every veteran needs a case manager, accessing support shouldn’t be difficult.

“If someone is struggling and they haven’t been given a case manager, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t be able to walk into a Veterans Affairs office and say, listen, I need to talk to somebody. I’m lost and confused and I don’t know what to do,” she said. “That should go without saying.”

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According to statistics published by the Government of Canada this year, just over 15,000 Canadian service members are women. Compared to its 80,000 male members, women make up 15.7 per cent of the CAF.

One of the portal’s objectives is to address historic discrimination against Canadian servicewomen, according to Park. 

“One of those continuing themes from the get-go has been challenging servicewomen’s right to serve and ability to serve,” she said. “That challenge that has described servicewomen’s history has included violence against women, ridicule, and harassment.”

Research affiliated with the Department of National Defence demonstrated that women are more likely to suffer sexual harassment and assault while serving in the military, both on deployment and in the Canadian military workplace. 

After soldiers began returning to the US after the Vietnam War, Park said researchers coined the term “moral injury” to describe acts that violate deeply-held moral values. 

For women veterans, Park added, moral injury is often connected to military sexual trauma.

“You can no longer trust something that you trusted,” Park said. “It’s the feeling of betrayal you feel as a veteran. That’s the kind of research we’re undertaking.”

Servicewomen Salute contracted Claire Cookson-Hill, a faculty member of Queen’s history department, to conduct a literary review of what is known about military sexual trauma in Canada.

Cookson-Hill presented her findings at the CIMVHR Gatineau conference in October. 

“[Cookson-Hill’s] research review is going to be the first display for the portal’s research and resources directory that we’re creating,” Park said.

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During her service, Laramie was one of very few women in a male-dominated trade.

“I had to deal with a lot of situations in the military that I’m still trying to process and come to terms with,” she said. “I was let down by the severe lack of gender equality, especially in my trade, and how my presence was received there.”

Laramie said that while Veterans Affairs provides the baseline for any medical and monetary needs service members have transitioning to civilian life, she had no access to female veteran social groups and activities.

She added that female veteran support groups would be helpful for women who have suffered sexual assault or harassment during their time in the military.

“It would be good for them to have access to a group of people where they can be like, guys, I’m really struggling,” 

While her case manager assisted her in transitioning to civilian life, Laramie said reconciling with her time spent in the military has been her biggest challenge in leaving it.

“In the end, there were a lot of things that transpired that left me with a lot of pain in my heart. I didn’t really have any closure,” she said. “I think, overall, I just really loved my job. I really did love it, and I really wanted to be there.”

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Canadian servicewomen have performed international missions since 1991, but Park said few records of those contributions exist.

“They never have been asked,” she said. “As best as we can find, we’ve not asked servicewomen when they get back from operational deployment about their lived experiences.”

Park said when she went to the Canadian War Museum and asked about the oral histories of those deployments, they had very few of women.

“But they would like more,” she said. “We might as well fill in the gaps. That’s the purpose of the portal project, to invite women veterans to see themselves, see their history.”

According to Park, aside from the compiled resources and support services, an important component of the portal will be to exhibit the contributions of Canadian servicewomen. 

“Telling your story tells that you exist,” she said. “The power of narrative, the power of sharing your story, is who we are as humans. It connects us. When there’s that silence, you forget.”

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