When Victoria Hudson joined the Army's Reserve Officers Training Corps in 1979, the rule against women in combat was firm and the front line in conflicts was clear.
"In Iraq and Afghanistan, that's just not true," said Hudson, who served 32 years in the Army on active duty or as a reservist, including in Iraq.
Both wars have pulled women into combat situations because the fighting doesn't adhere to front lines.
Since the first troops landed in Afghanistan in 2001, more than 238,000 women have been deployed there or in Iraq. More than 800 have been wounded. More than 130 have died. Hundreds won top honors for their valor, blurring the line between combat and noncombat and forcing the military to include women in nonsanctioned roles.
That means an unprecedented number of women will become veterans -- particularly in California, which has one of the highest percentages of women veterans in the country. The institutions serving them when they leave the military will have to adapt to the needs women veterans will bring home with them. Those needs, from child care to military sexual trauma, are reflected in the poetry, painting and music and writing by women veterans in an exhibit called "SHOUT! Art by Women Veterans," which opens Wednesday at the San Francisco Women's Building.
Hudson's writing will be on display along with works by 18 other women during the annual art exhibit organized by Swords to Plowshares, which provides
The fact that the Department of Veterans Affairs has a women's clinic is "a huge advancement," said Hudson, who served as a civilian affairs officer, convoy commander and adviser to a female Iraqi provincial legislator.
She is now an author and lives in Hayward with her partner and child.
Most VA hospitals have responded by offering health care that recognizes the particular needs of women, she said.
"But there's still a ways to go."
Beginning this month the Army is opening 14,000 combat-related jobs. This year, the Marines will open infantry training to women. And the Navy loosened restrictions by allowing women to be assigned to submarines. But women veterans said services still focus on Vietnam-era issues, such as homelessness, and are geared toward aging men who served in that war.
The government has barely recognized the distinct demands women are bringing home. They need fertility services, appropriate housing and child care. In 2009 and 2010, post-traumatic stress disorder, hypertension and depression were the top three diagnostic categories for women veterans treated by the Veterans Affairs. About one in five experienced military sexual trauma.
They have to deal with readjusting to civilian life, where the assertiveness required in the military is regarded as unwanted aggression, and where women veterans are viewed with ambivalence. In addition, the demands will shift over time as the women transition from their military role to civilian life as professionals who are also daughters, mothers, wives and sisters.
"Women veterans know what their needs are," said Star Lara, who served in the Army from 1995 until 2007, including two tours in Iraq, where she earned a Combat Action Badge after her convoy was attacked. She now coordinates services for women veterans for Swords to Plowshares.
"They aren't reaching out for benefits," said Lara, 35, referring to women veterans.
Veterans, men and women alike, have to prioritize dealing with the trauma they bring home from the battlefield, instead of pushing them aside until something happens that "boils it up to the surface," she said. Women, however, tend to prioritize their children, husband, family, friends and work. "Usually, the very last thing is their self," said Lara, who contributed a montage last year to Shout! and a short story this year.
Lara now lives in Hayward with her boyfriend, also an Iraq veteran. She said she wants to see that women have an easier time getting the recognition they deserve than was the case for her generation.
The Internet and social media have made that easier.
In contrast, when Jo Ann Martinez, founder of Women Veterans Connect, left the Air Force in 2002, she said "we didn't have much besides the VA."
She had a hard time relating to people who hadn't served and couldn't explain why a seemingly simple task like taking BART from her home in Alameda to San Francisco would be so difficult for her.
The transit triggered the old wounds left by trauma she experienced during her service.
The VA trauma recovery program had helped a lot, said Martinez, 30, of Alameda.
But she said she needed to connect with other people "outside the box." She began attending a Shout! writing workshop to connect with other women vets.
Drawing and painting, Martinez said, "became kind of my yoga."
It allowed her to, as she put it, "check out and do something peaceful."