With the Department of Veterans Affairs under scrutiny over allegations of treatment delays in several states, She The People wanted to get the lay of the land in terms of female veterans, who are among the fastest-growing segments of the veteran population.
First, a few numbers. According to the VA, there are about 2.2 million female veterans and about half of them have served since 1990. The states with the largest population of female veterans are Texas (191,757), California (184,744), Florida (166,222), Virginia (134,350) and Georgia (106,857). With 4,493 female veterans, Vermont has the lowest population of any of the states — the District of Columbia has 3,991 women who are veterans.
Overall, women are about 10 percent of the veteran population:
About 6 percent of VA health-care users are women, and the number of female veterans in the VA health-care system has doubled from 160,000 to 390,000 over the past decade, according to the VA. Nearly 60 percent are older than 45, meaning that more long-term care and intensive services will be necessary. But the average age of female veterans (48) is still well below the average age of male veterans (63).
Over the next few decades, even as the population of veterans is set to decline from about 22 million currently to about 15 million by 2040, the percentage of female veterans is projected to rise:
In Illinois, a state that is home to about 67,000 female veterans, Rochelle Crump runs a group called National Women Veterans United that reaches about 700 women a year, providing everything from help with rent to employment advice. She served in the Army in the Vietnam era, worked for the VA at the federal and state level for two decades, and has noticed a demographic shift.
“There has been tremendous change. There was a time when there were just a few of us, but more women have come out to identify themselves as veterans and express their needs,” Crump said. “A lot of them have been silent and not feeling worthy of their service because everything had been so male dominated, particularly in health care, that they just didn’t feel like they were a part of it. Even in the service organizations, they felt like they didn’t have a place because they don’t specifically address the needs of women.”
Crump said she has heard a variety of issues from women back from war, among them foot and knee problems because of having to wear heavy boots.
“For women, there is a still a gap in service delivery — one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing. You ask to see who the women’s program manager is, you go in, and they don’t know who that is,” she said. “One of our members broke her ankle and they told her they didn’t have crutches for a female. Yes, they had crutches, but they had them in another area. When you look at things like that, you know you have a long way to go.”
By 2016, combat roles in all the military branches will be open to women, which will mark a new chapter for the armed services.
With new jobs in the military, women will have a broader range of opportunities, but also more risks, returning from the battlefield with different injuries and needs.
A January report found an overall increase in the suicide rate of female veterans who use VA services — in 2009, the rate was 12.9 per 100,000; in 2011, it was 14.4.
But often the issues that female veterans face are not as acute.
Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), who three years ago started a task force on women in the military, pushed for measures in the National Defense Authorization Act, which just passed the House, that specifically addressed the needs of women, including a measure that looks at whether service members have access to treatments for infertility, including in vitro fertilization.
Sanchez said that the “VA must step up to the plate here because we owe our servicewomen nothing less.”
“The needs of our veterans are changing and will continue to change as more women serve in combat. The Department of Veterans Affairs has to face reality and be prepared to care for our female veterans and I believe a part of their funding should be specifically geared towards women services,” she said in a statement. “Some VA Hospitals, like the one in Long Beach, CA, have women’s health clinics. That kind of specificity needs to happen across the country. The VA cannot be a one-size-fits-all shop. We need to think about different issues, issues that can change a female veteran’s life.”
In October of 2013, the Center for Women Veterans, a division of the VA that was established in 1994, tapped a new head, Elisa Basnight.
In a statement Basnight cited two examples of progress:
- In fiscal year 2013 alone, VA supported unprecedented numbers of women Veterans, with compensation benefits distributed to more than 329,000, education benefits to 122,000, and $1.9 billion in home loan guaranty benefits to 33,000.
- Last year, VA launched its Women Veterans Hotline (1-855-VA-WOMEN), to address questions from women Veterans, their families and caregivers, in regard to VA-offered services and resources.
“VA’s commitment to women Veterans is second-to-none and we realize that collaboration is key to our success,” Basnight said in a statement. “VA has made significant progress in serving women Veterans, and remains committed to improving benefits and services to meet women Veterans’ evolving needs.”