EAST MANATEE -- Women who serve in the military may come home with problems that include the trauma of sexual assault, as well as post-traumatic stress syndrome from serving in combat -- and a reluctance to seek help.
A first-time retreat being held in East Manatee this week is helping 15 of them face their issues, and transition back into society.
More must be done to help women who served in the military, and often don't seek help unless they are in crisis, Georgie Alfano-Cronk, one of the organizers of the retreat, said.
Even though the military could not carry out its mission without the more than 200,000 women who today represent about 15 percent of all branches, too little has been done to help them smoothly return to civilian life.
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"Things haven't changed that much for female veterans," said Alfano-Cronk, who served three years on active duty in the Army from 1973 to 1976.
Although the Department of Veterans Affairs has come a long way in serving women veterans, more remains to be done, she said. "It's almost like the VA doesn't know how to approach us," Alfano-Cronk said.
In recent years, the Department of Defense has found itself in headlines because of the growing number of sexual assaults in the ranks.
The Department of Defense reports
sexual assaults increased from 1,700 in calendar year 2004 to 3,374 in fiscal year 2012.
Alfano-Cronk said she believes that the true numbers could be much larger.
"A lot of women don't discuss it for as long as 20 years," she said.
Many of the volunteers at the retreat Tuesday were wearing nomore.org T-shirts. The national organization is working to end domestic violence and sexual assault.
Theresa Sparks, a psychologist with the VA, is facilitating some of the workshops at Christian Retreat Conference Center in East Manatee County, and is making herself available to any of the participants who want to talk about their problems.
Too often, the stereotype is that all veterans are men.
"There is a huge gap in our society. We often don't think of women as veterans," Sparks said.
"Women veterans need to get together to talk to women veterans. We need to build the bonds of trust," she said.
Alfano-Cronk said she would like to see women vets become more vocal and to fight for the benefits they have earned.
Twenty-two veterans a day commit suicide, she said.
"When you are hurting and you have no one to reach out to, you are more likely to do that. It's an emergency situation," Alfano-Cronk said.
The Sarasota County Veteran's Commission and Professionals Assisting Military, Family & Friends (PAMFF) are partnering to host the free retreat, titled "Change -- You Can" Tuesday, Sept. 16, through Friday, Sept. 19.
"This is a place for female veterans to connect with each other and to help in the transition," said PAMFF founder Joyce Rubin.
The retreat, serving veterans from Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties, is hoped to become an annual event, said Susan Chandler-Caruso, past president of the Blue Star Mothers of Southwest Florida.
The best outcome would be helping vets live the better lives that they deserve, Chandler-Caruso said.
Topics for the retreat include balancing life, healthy relationships, anger management, continuing education, finding a job, shutting down and shutting out, healthy parentin and the power of healing.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter @jajones1.