For years, Deborah repaired Tomahawk missiles for the U.S. Navy in Hawaii stationed onboard ships in the isolated reaches of the Pacific Ocean. But civilian life in Massachusetts has proven to be just as challenging, she said, as she struggles to find steady employment and stave off eviction from her Peabody apartment.

Deborah said she received four eviction notices in the last six months of 2022 and fell behind on the rent again in March. She scraped together as much as she could to pay, sacrificing food for her family and gas for their car.

“We had to ask family for help with the shortfall,” she said. “It took every penny we had and we were still $50 short.”

Like other women veterans in Massachusetts, Deborah said Veterans Affairs has been little help. But she can’t access emergency housing benefits until she’s been evicted and has had no help navigating the system. GBH is identifying Deborah by first name only due to her concern that speaking up could affect her employment.

Jon Santiago, the new veterans’ secretary for the state, recognized that the agency has failed to support women like Deborah.

“I plan to bolster our efforts and engage more women,” Santiago said in a statement to GBH News. “Women veterans are the fastest growing group of veterans, and it is critically important that we continue our outreach efforts.”

Last fall, the state issued a scathing report on the agency’s failure to reach women veterans, finding that it failed to achieve its intended purpose. The report found that while there are 25,000 women veterans in Massachusetts, a state office created to connect them with benefits — the Women Veterans Network — had contact information for just 1,500 women or 6% of the population.

Deborah was clearly not among them.

“I’ve never heard of them before,” she told GBH News.

And she is not alone. Over and over again, women veterans interviewed by GBH News said they had never heard of the network. It’s also clear that many would have benefitted from guidance on how to get support and assistance from the VA.

Army veteran Rebecca Mann of Mattapoisett had her right leg amputated after her second deployment to Afghanistan, but when she needed help navigating the VA, it wasn’t there.

“I purchased my house and then a few years later, I found out that I was eligible for a tax credit,” Mann said. “I was like, oh, well, that would have been good to know.”

Massachusetts’ Women Veterans director Susan McDonough didn’t respond to requests for comment about the network’s outreach or the September 2022 report.

Shelley Macdermid Wadsworth, director of the Military Family Research Institute at Purdue University, said women veterans’ needs are different from men’s and need to be heard. Women experience higher rates of sexual harassment and assault in the military and female veterans are more than twice as likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“The most troubling thing I’m hearing is that the department failed to conduct adequate outreach to women veterans,” Wadsworth said. “That’s a very avoidable problem.”

'Her soul died over there'

For some women, like Emily Carroll, the needs are urgent. Emily Carroll fought in tours of Afghanistan and Iraq before her unexpected death last year at age 37.

Carroll’s sister and aunt said Emily tried to get the help she needed from the VA for years after returning stateside, but couldn’t.

“Emily, in a lot of ways, died 10 years ago in Afghanistan. It's just that we buried her after she died on Jan. 14, 2022,” her sister Meaghan Carroll-Rateau said. “Her soul died over there.”

Carroll enlisted at age 21 and by 24 was one of 170,300 U.S. troops to be deployed to Iraq during the second Persian Gulf War. She worked in civil affairs, and her unit’s operating base sat near burn pits belching toxic fumes.

She struggled with severe damage to her lungs.

“I think it was something like 70% damage to her lungs, some cardiac compromise and she lost hearing in one ear. But the burn pit damage was really, really severe,” Carroll-Rateau said.

Two years after Iraq, she was deployed to Afghanistan, where she also worked in civil affairs. She confided in her sister that she was sexually assaulted at gunpoint by multiple military members during that tour.

Two women sit holding a photo of another woman framed.
Meaghan Carroll-Rateau and Maureen Gillis hold a photo of U.S. Army veteran Emily Carroll who died at age 37.

According to Emily’s personal journal entries, which her family let GBH review, Carroll began binge drinking and using alcohol to help with insomnia. After she was discharged, her alcohol use only worsened and she was diagnosed with severe PTSD.

In her journal, she wrote that the VA never connected her with a consistent therapist. Instead, they assigned her a new therapist each time she visited the VA. Carroll-Rateau said she also found multiple prescriptions that appeared to have been prescribed by different doctors.

After 18 months of sobriety last year, she relapsed and died.

According to the medical examiner’s report, she died of natural causes.

But Carroll-Rateau said she thinks Emily’s relapse in combination with the burn pit damage to her body, brought her life to an early end.

Her family continues to feel anger and grief, regretting that they let her drop out of college to enlist.

“Instead of having that support coming home, the resources, the support and the help, it was 10 years of really just kind of Band-Aid solutions,” Carroll-Rateau said.


For Emily Oneschuk, joining the military seemed like the “obvious, cool thing to do.” Both her father and grandfather were in the Navy, and she wanted to follow in their footsteps.

Oneschuk was 22 years old when she became a commissioned officer as a student at Miami University in Ohio. She dreamed of becoming a Navy SEAL.

But in Florida, she said she was sexually harassed and assaulted. During that time, she said she was also grieving the death of her brother, who was shot and killed in a crime stateside.

After four years of active duty, she left the military as a conscientious objector and was diagnosed with PTSD.

She still qualifies for military benefits, despite the circumstances of her discharge. But after a year as a civilian, she said she still isn’t entirely sure what benefits she's entitled to receive.

“Someone told me you can get a welcome home bonus of $500. I had to apply for that, but who tells me? Where do I find that? Who do I talk to?” Oneschuk asked.

Wadsworth, the Purdue researcher, said women have a more difficult time navigating the VA because it was not designed for women's health needs.

“Women are a numeric minority," in the military, she said. That "means that they're less likely to run into a health care provider who's been trained to deal with women's issues."

The Rand Corporation published a report last year detailing the obstacles, from reproductive care to mental health challenges.

“When [women vets] transition to civilian life, they become "invisible," not recognized as veterans in the same way as their male peers,” the report said. “As a result, their presence has historically been overlooked, their contributions underappreciated and their needs underexamined and under-resourced.”

That was Mann, the Mattapoisett vet's experience.

She served in the Army for 11 years, and was twice deployed to Afghanistan. It was during her 2014 deployment that her right foot was injured and amputated. Mann said navigating the VA, her medical challenges, benefits and the disability system after leaving the military was overwhelming, especially while working full-time in her new civilian life.

“There's no how-to guide for the VA. It doesn't exist,” she said. And she said she was never contacted by the Women Veterans Network.

In 2020, Mann needed her left foot amputated too. Progressing to a double-amputee caused her to file several changes to her disability claim, complicating the process even further.

She says from her experience, every VA handles things differently and nothing is standardized. It was frustrating to be turned down for a prosthetic in Boston, for example, only to receive a prosthetic from the Providence VA.

“At that time I was very angry about it because I shouldn't have to feel like I'm begging for things that are basic for everyday life. There should be no reason to feel like you have to beg for those things,” she said.

It's a nonprofit called Homes For Our Troops, which builds specially adapted homes for severely injured veterans, that's been a godsend. They're building her a wheelchair accessible house in Mattapoisett. It's going to be life changing, Mann said.

“I don't think you can really put into words how much easier it's going to be when I can finally access my entire home and go outside with my dogs,” she said.

Network failure

Back in Peabody, Deborah, the Navy vet, said she and her partner are trying to raise two young children, ages nine and seven. She said she will only qualify for military housing benefits if she and her family are homeless, but not on the brink of it.

"It's heartless," she said.

She used her G.I. Bill benefits to earn two associate’s degrees, and she only needs one more class to obtain her paralegal certificate. She also sells homemade jewelry on Etsy, but struggles just to afford the postage to mail finished orders.

The fact that she enlisted in the military in Nebraska also may significantly restrict the flow of benefits — that's because the Department of Defense differentiates between a person's state of residence and their "Home of Record," or the place they first signed up.

This means that while a veteran's federal benefits might not be impacted after moving, the perks and resources offered by individual states can be harder to secure.

She said she’s learned that she’s on her own when it comes to navigating the veterans' bureaucracy to get what she needs — and deserves.

And that, she said, is where the Women Veterans Network could have helped.

Corrected: January 19, 2024
This story was updated to correct the location of Emily Oneshuck's traumatic experience and update a reference to her grandfather, who served in the Navy but was not a pilot.