“Not every GI is a Joe.”
“Please, don’t call me Mister”
These are the titles of a series of posters that the Department of Veterans Affairs has put up across its vast hospital system.
It’s all part of an effort to help the fastest growing veteran population — women — feel more comfortable in a system designed to serve and dominated by male veterans.
Today’s veterans are more likely to be women than at any other time in U.S. history: There are currently 2.2 million of them.
Since the Civil War, women have served in the U.S. armed forces. But, in 1973, a two percent legislative cap on women’s participation in the military was lifted, and women began entering military service at unprecedented rates. Approximately 280,000 women served in the post 9/11 Global War on Terrorism: Operations Enduring Freedom (OEF), Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and New Dawn (OND).
“Most of these women were directly exposed to combat and the daily threat of wartime violence,” according to a report released earlier this year by the Disabled American Veterans.”But the current system that awaits women transitioning from military service is a disjointed patchwork of programs marked by serious gaps in health care, housing, other community support services, employment and efforts to eradicate sexual assault.”
As the number of female veterans has risen, so have their voices. And many female veterans have spoken out about feeling unwelcome in VA hospitals. They say they are asked if they are daughter or wife of a male veteran. Many VA clinics only recently opened bathrooms for female patients.
And women who say they have service related PTSD say they find the department’s bureaucracy confusing and exhausting, often causing them to give up. Those women who say they suffered from sexual abuse — what the department calls Military Sexual Trauma (MST) — by male troops in the service, said they also found it re-traumatizing to sit in waiting rooms waiting for therapy, when the rooms are mostly filled with male veterans.
“There’s no doubt that the VA was originally geared toward serving men, but the population has really been growing, and we have been actively working to transform the care for women’s veterans,” said Sally Haskell, deputy chief consultant for women’s health at VA. “We had a lot of work to do and we still have a lot of work to do.”
Aside from open more women’s clinics — there are currently 80 out of 150 centers — hiring more gynecologists — just under one-third of VA medical centers do not employ a staff gynecologist — the department is also trying to address some of the cultural issues that make female veterans feel uncomfortable, said Haskell.
One empowering poster, for instance, shows a strong young female veterans and reads: You earned the title Veteran. Wear it with pride.”
Another shows a male and a female and asks: “Who is the veteran? Both,” it says. “It’s our job to give every vet the best care anywhere.”
“That’s put up inside nurses and doctor’s stations and reception areas. We realized there was a real need for a culture change,” said Haskell.
Along with the posters, they are also hiring more female veteran program managers, who are working inside the health-care system to help female veterans get the services they need access to. Some hospitals are also requiring their staff to take cultural awareness training, especially as more veterans return home from Iraq and Afghanistan.
VA has also recent ramped up maternity programs since many of the returning female veterans are young and deciding to start families, to the tune of more than 10,000 infants in five years, VA says.
The Disabled American Veterans report found that pregnant veterans have specific needs, often because of PTSD or other service connected issues. For instance, women are less likely to have a prosthetic that fits properly and they face unique issues when pregnant, including increased wear on the prosthetic and need for recurrent modifications.
In the past, while a veteran’s delivery expense was covered, the actual infant was not, even during the first few days of life. Mothers were forced to worry about private insurance, Medicaid or even pay out of pocket.
In 2010, VA instituted a policy change expanding care for the infant’s first seven days of life.
Veteran’s activist Ruth Moore says things are improving, even if the process is slow.
The former airman says she was sexually assaulted twice by her supervisor — the second time for reporting the rape — when she was an 18-year-old Navy service woman stationed in The Azores islands with the Navy.
Moore spent 23 years trying to get her benefits, which is why the 2013 Ruth Moore Act, expanding Va health care for rape and sexual trauma survivors, is named after her.
In May, Moore learned she will finally receive more than $405,000 in back benefits for claims related to the sexual assault against her that previously had been denied by VA. She also received an apology from the department for “a “clear and unmistakable error” – an official VA classification.
“We have reached the cusp of change and I hope this will pave the way for other women. But there is still enormous room for improvement,” said Moore, 45, who formed a non-profit and plans to use her benefits money to help other female veterans recover from their pain and get their benefits. “I think people are realizing that we really are veterans and we are speaking out about what we deserve.”
Here are some other facts about women veteran’s from the Disabled American Veterans’ Report:
- Women are the fastest growing segment of the homeless veteran population and are more likely to be homeless with children.
- Women comprise nearly 12 percent of service members who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
- More than 79 percent of them are younger than 40; 88 percent are enlisted and 12 percent are officers.
- Most common medical conditions for which they visited VA: diseases of the musculoskeletal and connective tissue, mental disorders, readjustment difficulties, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- 1 in 5 female veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are diagnosed with PTSD.