There are somewhere between 700,000 and 800,000 women veterans today, and thousands, probably between 8,000 and 10,000, are veterans of Vietnam. But no one knows how many. The American government didn't keep figures on how many women it sent to Vietnam.
But two of them returned to Capitol Hill yesterday to remind the government that women did serve in that war, that they, too, were exposed to toxic chemicals and suffered post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and that they, too, are entitled to adequate physical and mental health care through the Veterans Administration.
One, Norma J. Griffiths-Boris, served as an Army nurse in Vietnam for nearly six years, rising to the rank of captain. About a year of that time was spent as a triage nurse, selecting the wounded who could be treated and sitting with the hopeless until they died. Two years after her return to the United States, she suffered a severe mental breakdown and received a medical discharge.
She could not stand sights and smells associated with Vietnam, such as the smell of burned flesh or patients with traumatic head wounds. She eventually turned to prescription drugs and attempted suicide. "I was unable to cope, and as far as I was able to determine, I was the only one unable to do so."
In 1981, she began reading about PTSD and realized she had strikingly similar symptoms. She went into a VA outpatient facility and was officially diagnosed as a schizophrenic, but she is being treated as an outpatient for PTSD. The cost to her has been years of misdiagnosis and treatment, a failed marriage, a lost career in nursing, wild fluctuations in weight, and financial strain. She is now remarried, pregnant, and studying for a BA degree at Temple University. Only two women, she said, have been admitted to an in-patient program for PTSD, and although she was a patient in a VA hospital in June of 1982, she was never even evaluated for the program. "I fact, I had to remind my doctor at almost every session that I had served in Vietnam."
Hers was the most dramatic of stories offered the House subcomittee on hospitals and health by representatives of veterans groups who want the VA to become more responsive to the health needs of women veterans. Testimony showed that women veterans often do not know they are entitled to care under certain circumstances in VA hospitals. The VA hospitals they go to often have no private bed and bathing facilities for women and often do not give women veterans pap smears or breast and gynecological exams that the VA acknowledges they should have. Army nurses have been ignored in studies of stress and of exposure to toxins.
A research study on women Vietnam veterans conducted by Jenny Ann Schnaier for her master's thesis at the University of Maryland is thought to be the first such study to be done. She received a 97 percent response to a survey of 89 women who had served in a medical capacity. What she found is powerful argument for further surveying and for help designed specifically for women veterans. Nearly a third reported having suicidal thoughts between one and nine times a month, for example.
Reps. Don Edwards (D-Calif.) and Bob Edgar (D-Pa.) have sponsored a bill to set up a permanent advisory committee on women veterans that would report to the VA administrator and to Congress. VA Administrator Harry Walters has proposed that he set up a committee, a plan backed yesterday by his top medical officer who said it would protect the VA administrator's flexibility.
Women veterans have been an invisible group, both in the public's thinking and the VA's thinking. While the current VA administrator appears determined to change that, there is nothing to guarantee that his successor will share his views, any more than his predecessors did.
Last year, there were 185,000 women in the armed forces, and the ratio of men to women veterans has dropped from 50 to 1 in the early 1970s to 39.5 to 1 in 1981. A General Accounting Office survey last September documented some progress in treating women veterans, but it also documented that the VA has a long way to go.
Women veterans are not temporary aberrations, a group that can be uncounted and ignored as they were in Vietnam. They are a permanent part of the armed forces, just as they were a permanent part of the Vietnam toll. Their problems and their needs deserve a permanent commitment by Congress to ensure that the women who served are not forgotten.