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Veterans Health Council, November/December 2018

Women and the VA

We’ve come a long way in caring for the women who served in the U.S. military, but we still have a long way to go. Many of the problems women veterans faced at the VA fifty years ago remain. Lack of appropriate care for those with military sexual trauma (MST) and no sense of belonging are still issues that plague the VA. Other issues have vastly improved, such as ensuring there are women counselors, homeless shelters that allow a mother to stay with her children, and the development of women veteran clinics that cater to the unique needs of women veterans. These are great strides compared to battles for women’s bathrooms in the VA that Marsha Four and Linda Schwartz had to fight for.

The VA will need to be even more vigilant as women serve in combat. It will need to be prepared for a new set of issues, some yet unknown, as these women exit the service and enter the VA. Rebecca Patterson, the new research assistant for the Veterans Health Council, and I attended a forum hosted by the Office on Women’s Health in which representatives from DoD and VA spoke about military women’s health. One expert mentioned research on the long-lasting effects of trauma from MST for women serving and trauma from combat as an issue for men. I stood up and asked him, “Where is your research on women veterans with MST and combat trauma?”

He was speechless. It had not occurred to him to measure that. This lack of research also leaves out of the equation men who have both combat trauma and military sexual trauma.

One issue I am hearing about more and more frequently is harassment of women veterans by male veterans at the VA. I’ve heard of comments such as, “You are way too pretty to be a veteran” and “Where is your husband? Oh, you are single? So am I.” I have spoken with more than a few women veterans who wear fake wedding rings to avoid getting hit on at the VA. One friend told me about a very upsetting incident in which another veteran took pictures of her on his phone in the waiting room—even after she asked him to stop.

There are things you can do to help make the VA a more welcoming space for women. When you see a woman at the VA being harassed, call out the harasser. Assume any woman you see at the VA is a veteran. If she is not, she won’t be offended. And if she is a veteran, she will feel heard, seen, and welcomed. If your VA does not have a women-specific provider, ask the hospital administration why.

Women veterans could use your help as we work to make the VA a more inclusive environment for all who served.





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