WASHINGTON -- Congresswomen who have served in the military are setting up a new caucus to support the nation's growing ranks of female service members, and they're looking for clout, too, in American politics.
The caucus, bipartisan and including men, would be a first.
There are more than a dozen military and veteran-related caucuses in the House, but none dedicated to the specific needs of women who serve. The still-forming Congressional Servicewomen & Women Veterans Caucus, which organizers said Wednesday includes 50 members of Congress, is part of this group's growing network of influence in national politics.
Organizers also are aiming to recruit more female veterans to run for office in 2020.
"It's a long time coming," said Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., an Air Force veteran and third-generation service member who is also among the historic class of House freshmen that delivered a Democratic majority in last year's elections.
She recalls leaving the military in 1991, after she and her husband had a baby, because she could not afford child care in Boston, where they were living. "What I've learned nearly 30 years later is that it hasn't changed."
But child care isn't the only concern of the group, which Houlahan hopes will eventually include senators who have served. Educating women on the veterans' health care and other services that are available to them also is on the agenda, as well as delivering and expanding on those services.
In the next 25 years, the number of female former service members is expected to nearly double and will account for nearly 1 in 5 living veterans. That's because the number of enlisted women serving is eight times more than it was when the draft ended, in 1973, according to statistics released from Houlahan's group. Women now account for 18 percent of the officer corps, up from 8 percent.
Female veterans face unique health-related challenges, according to letters the future caucus members have sent to Army Secretary Mark T. Esper and Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer. The caucus wants all the services to follow the model of an Air Force pilot program that offers four hours of training on the health services offered by the VA to women leaving the military.
Joining Houlahan at a news conference Wednesday were Reps. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii; Elaine Luria, D-Va.; Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J.; Don Bacon, R-Neb.; and Gil Cisneros, D-Calif. The caucus is awaiting final approval in the House and could become official as soon as this week.
"We did not want to be the last people to fill these shoes" as female veterans and members of Congress, Luria said. "We're here to stand behind these young women."
Houlahan, Luria and Sherrill were part of a record number of female veterans with military or intelligence experience who ran for Congress last year. They're raising money together for potential candidates in 2020 with military experience through Service First Women's Victory Fund and New Politics, a bipartisan organization.
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