Female Vets Fight on the Frontlines – for Health Care

Amie Newman

Female soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan face a lack of reproductive and mental health services from the Veterans Administration. And the Veterans Administration is hesitant in its efforts to remedy the issue.

Female soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan face a lack of reproductive and mental health services from the Veterans Administration. And the Veterans Administration is hesitant in its efforts to remedy the issue.  

According to the Chicago Tribune, while the Department of Veteran Affairs has improved efforts to care for female soldiers, they still face "continual challenges as they move to open the door
to a man’s world, where Pap tests and mammograms could become as common
as prostate exams. And where "military sexual trauma" would be treated
as a serious and growing mental health problem, rather than as a
subject to be avoided."

It’s hard to imagine that the growing numbers of women in the military have just "snuck up" on the VA such that they’re suddenly facing a line of women stretching out the door needing PAP smears and birth control as well as mental health care for sexual assault without a clear plan in place. There have been over 180,000 women deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last year, according to the Tribune, the VA treated over 255,000 female soldiers and "the number is expected to double within five years." According to the DVA, "… women make up 14.8 percent of the active duty military force and approximately 22.8 percent of the reserve force.  By 2010, they are expected to represent over 14 percent of the total veteran population…Sixty-two percent of women veterans are less than 45 years of age."

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That’s a lot of women who require a lot of reproductive and sexual health care covering the gamut from contraception to PAP smears, sexually transmitted infection tests, infertility and family planning. Unfortunately, many VA clinics don’t have full-time obstetricians or gynecologists and rely on group therapy sessions that are co-ed where women may not feel comfortable opening up about sexual trauma, rape or assault. And addressing the prevalence of military sexual trauma for female veterans, trauma which can lead to post traumatic stress disorder (despite ignorant physicians cluelessness) is crucial to female veterans mental health.

From the NY Times:

Nearly a third of female veterans say they were sexually assaulted or
raped while in the military, and 71 percent to 90 percent say they were
sexually harassed by the men with whom they served.

But Patricia Hayes, VA’s national director of women’s health care issue, says that while "there are places that may have gaps" the VA "has geared up and are gearing up."

Thankfully Senator Patty Murray, a long time advocate for veterans, has recognized this as a struggle between an underfunded Veterans Administration and appropriately caring for our female soldier’s unique reproductive and sexual health care needs when they return from the frontlines.

The Daily Women’s Health Policy Report reports that Murray introduced SB 2799, a bill  "that would require VA to study how serving in Iraq and Afghanistan has affected the physical, mental and reproductive health of women, as well as how it is dealing with those problems. The legislation also would require VA facilities to care for newborn children of female veterans who are receiving maternity care and would require increased training for VA personnel dealing with military sexual trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder in women."

At a hearing in May the VA told Murray that they just didn’t have the money to implement a lot of the initiatives included in the bill though they said they were "absolutely committed to making (female veterans) feel welcome."

To which Murray responded with, "Making them welcome and addressing their needs are two different
things…It’s important we focus laserlike on this.”

It’s hard to argue that our female veterans deserve the same level of attention, care and access to health services that our male veterans do – even though this administration has neglected the needs of our veterans across the board. 

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