Written by: Kathleen Zaratzian

On September 24, 2014, Disabled American Veterans (DAV) released a comprehensive report assessing the distinct needs of female veterans and the sufficiency of programs available to them when they leave military service.  The report, titled Women Veterans: The Long Journey Home, urges the expansion of female specific programs and outlines ways in which federal agencies and community service providers do not adequately meet the unique needs of female veterans.  The number of female military service members and transitioning female veterans is increasing, which makes it essential that veterans’ services are restructured to close the gender gap in health care, job training, finance, housing, social issues and combating sexual assault.

Women constitute a growing number of U.S. military service members.  Female roles are expanding to previously “men-only” positions including roles in infantry and armor divisions and special operations.  More than ever before, women are directly exposed to combat and other violence, increasing the likelihood of common combat related injuries such as PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury.  Last year, the VA cared for approximately 390,000 female veterans at its hospitals and clinics, as compared to the 5.3 million male veterans who used the VA system.  Despite the sizeable difference across gender, this is more than double the number of women who received care in 2000.  And the number of female veterans is expected to increase, while the number of male veterans is expected to decrease by 2020.

Despite the growing prominence of women in the military, the report found that “[w]hen women talk about their military service, a large number will report that they feel invisible, that their ‘non-combat’ role was less valued than those of the men who served and that they do not identify themselves as veterans. There remains a misperception on the part of the American public and women who serve that they are not eligible for full veterans’ benefits.”  The DAV proposes changes to the culture of veterans’ services to broaden services that currently tailor to male veterans and to close the gender gap in veterans’ services that currently leave female veterans feeling devalued and undeserving of the benefits that they earned during service.

Some of the ways in which the needs of female veterans differ from their male counterparts in terms of disability benefits include: higher rates of PTSD symptoms, depression and other co-morbid conditions; different responses to prosthesis and complications with fittings during pregnancy; preferences for female physicians and increased privacy; different types of treatment such as gender-specific group counseling, residential treatment and specialty inpatient programs; and women specific health services.

Evidence that female veterans are not receiving adequate services can be seen in the VA’s finding “that almost one in five women veterans has delayed or gone without needed care in the prior 12 months.”  One third of VA medical centers do not have a gynecologist on staff.  Additionally, reports of military sexual trauma (MST) are growing and one in five women enrolled in VA health care screen positive for MST.  However, a third of VA medical centers and community clinics were unable to provide full MST services as recently as 2013.

DAV recommends expansion of gender-specific programs and a shift in military culture that honors, respects, and fully understands the unique needs of female veterans.  Fortunately, the VA appears receptive to these recommendations.  Dr. Carolyn Clancy, VA’s acting undersecretary, told a group of female veterans and supporters that the report will serve “as our road map for improvements.”  The VA is best situated to provide the best health care to female veterans because VA health care combines social, economic, psychological and physical services specialized for veterans.  However, the differences between men and women in the ways that they experience military service and gender-specific health needs must not be ignored.

Sources:

  1. Matthew Daly, Report: Services for female veterans fall short, Federal News Radio (September 25, 2014), http://www.federalnewsradio.com/538/3708509/Report-Services-for-female-veterans-fall-short.
  2. New Report Reveals Nation Still Not Fully Equipped to Support Women Veterans, DAV (September 24, 2014), http://www.dav.org/learn-more/news/2014/new-report-reveals-nation-still-fully-equipped-support-women-veterans/.
  3. Women Veterans: The Long Journey Home, DAV, (2014), http://www.dav.org/wp-content/uploads/women-veterans-study.pdf.

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