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January/February 2019

We Righted the Wrong

Let’s go back in time.

Prior to 1980, very little was said about military women and even less was known about them. It was not until the 1980 U.S. Census that women were asked if they served in the military. To the surprise of many, 1.2 million women were identified as veterans. This startling discovery prompted Congress and the VA to begin concerted efforts to reach out to this virtually unknown population.

A Few Good WomenCongress immediately commissioned a “Survey of Women Veterans” to determine the needs and experiences of these missing patriots. Interestingly, the study found that 57 percent of these women did not even know they were eligible for services from the VA.

Although women had served honorably in every major American war since the founding of the nation, their mostly unofficial and inconspicuous roles contributed to their anonymity. Even before the ban on women in combat was lifted in 2013, thousands of women had served in combat areas and situations in every war. Because the number of women serving in the military had been restricted by law to no more than 2 percent of the active-duty force, women were nearly invisible.

With the advent of the All-Volunteer Force in the 1970s participation and opportunities in the military substantially improved. At the start of the Gulf War in 1991, women made up almost 11 percent of the military. In 2018 this number was over 18 percent.

The congressional review precipitated by the 1980 Census concluded that up to 16,000 women who had served in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) during World War II had been deemed ineligible for veterans benefits because they were dropped from the rolls when the Women’s Army Corp (WAC) was organized in 1943. The GI Bill had expired, so Congress tried to extend comparable benefits to the WAAC. However, a controversy ensued, and those attempts failed.

Women who had served in Vietnam resolved that they would not be treated so unfairly.

Women Vietnam veterans had completed their military commitment with injuries, illnesses, and disabilities that were definitely associated with their service. Although these conditions qualified them for care at the VA, when they tried to get it, they were either turned away or received substandard care. 

In 1983 during Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearings, Lynda Van Devanter, a former Army nurse and the National Women Veterans Project Director for VVA, noted: “In most cases, women cannot receive gynecological care from the VA, although this is the most elemental health care need of a woman veteran.” She spoke for all women veterans but clearly addressed the issues of disabled women veterans. She pushed the issue more by noting that some of the women complained they had been examined “in full view of men passing through the exam area” and that there was a pervasive lack of privacy and few qualified gynecologists in VA hospitals.

Van Devanter further suggested that the government had never cared to find out what the stresses of war had been on women who had served in battle zones. “Some sixty-five women were held prisoners of war on Corregidor for the duration of World War II,” she said. “Where are studies of those women?”

Thus began a new era for equity and recognition of women veterans and all that they had earned through their military service. This was a generation that would not settle for the status quo. Amid the cultural upheaval of the times, these women veterans took their rightful place in demanding justified change.

A 1982 Government Accounting Office report, Actions Needed to Insure that Female Veterans Have Equal Access to VA Benefits, noted inadequate treatment facilities for women veterans; unequal access to treatment and medical services; insufficient provisions for privacy; incomplete physical exams; little or no gynecological care; and no systematic effort to inform women about their entitlements. The report’s findings were reiterated during congressional hearings that condemned the low standards of health care VA provided to women.

Rising interest in women veterans prompted yet another study by VA in 1985, which again confirmed that more than half of women veterans were unaware of their benefits. More importantly, results indicated that women veterans had twice the rates of cancers compared to women in the general population. Especially disturbing were the high rates of cervical, uterine, and ovarian cancers. This proved to be more disturbing to women veterans than to their VA health providers. It was in this environment that in 1992 Congress passed legislation to require VA to provide complete physicals, including gynecological exams, to all women veterans

Equally disturbing was the struggle to substantiate a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder for women who served in Vietnam. At that time, unless you had been awarded a Combat Infantryman Badge, you were not eligible for this diagnosis. Women with the sentinel symptoms of PTSD were diagnosed as schizophrenic, bipolar, or having an adjustment disorder. Then the Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study—which included men and women who served in Vietnam, military men and women who did not serve in Vietnam, and a comparable group of civilians—revealed that nurses in Vietnam saw more death and dying in their care of casualties than men who received the Combat Infantryman Badge. Finally, women and other non-combat personnel became eligible for a diagnosis of PTSD. This struggle broadened our understanding of traumatic experiences to include all military members, first responders, and others who experienced profound episodes of traumatic events.

© Michael Keating

Shoulder to Shoulder

Forty years ago, in 1978, just after Vietnam Veterans of America was established, founding President Bobby Muller received a phone call from Lynda Van Devanter. During the call Van Devanter reminded Muller that between 10,000 and 15,000 female U.S. service members served in country (not all were nurses) and that more than 250,000 served on active duty worldwide during the Vietnam War. This set the wheels in motion, and immediately thrust VVA into the lead on recognizing and supporting women veterans to an extent that no previous VSO had ever done—or considered doing. VVA kicked that door open. 

In 1979, making VVA’s support of women veterans official, Muller appointed Van Devanter the first Executive Director of VVA’s Women Veterans Project, marking the first time that any national VSO took the concerns of women veterans seriously. The pioneering Women Veterans Project immediately became the nation’s chief advocate for female veterans. Its main goals were getting the word out about women veterans’ issues; determining the special needs of women veterans; advocating for reforms in the VA to better accommodate the needs of female veterans; and starting a program to train women veteran service officers.

Soon thereafter, VVA began welcoming women veterans at all levels of the organization. “One group of veterans whose needs have been almost totally ignored are the women who served in Vietnam,” VVA announced in 1982. “Many of them have the same problems with readjustment, Agent Orange, and post-traumatic stress disorder that trouble male veterans.”

“We are convinced,” VVA concluded, “that the VA does not live up to its obligation to provide medical service to women.”

Since 1979, too, VVA women lobbied for the creation of the VA’s Center for Women Veterans and continued funding of the VA’s Vet Center program; pushed for the creation of specialized women veteran clinics and Women Veteran Program Coordinators in each VA; were a driving force behind the creation of the national Vietnam Women’s Memorial in Washington, D.C.; worked for Agent Orange compensation legislation, including for the offspring of Vietnam veterans; and advocated for female veterans with PTSD and all victims of military sexual trauma.

VVA was the first VSO to fight for the payment of a special monthly compensation (SMC) for a woman veteran who lost one or more breasts as a result of service-connected injury or disability. VA originally argued that you could not see missing breasts so there was no disfigurement. With the passage of H.R.3998, SMC was authorized for both men and women and paved the way for the women warriors of today to claim this additional payment for their loss of reproductive organs.

VVA was forging the path and setting the stage for its long-term commitment to bring justice, equity, and gender-related care and benefits for women veterans—for all veterans.

The Women Veterans Project became today’s VVA Women Veterans Committee, which has built its programs and progress on the drive and success of its past leaders and members, working over four decades on the local, state, and national levels for substantive changes that have helped better the lives of women veterans.

Working in concert with VVA’s Government Affairs Committee and national staff, the Women Veterans Committee continues with unceasing drive to ensure that all VA facilities provide resources to diagnose and treat women veterans fairly and equally.

VVA’s commitment to female veterans is reflected in the fact that many women have served in leadership roles in the organization. A former Army nurse who served in Vietnam, Mary Stout became the first woman to be elected National VVA President in 1989. In fact, she was the first woman veteran elected to head any congressionally chartered VSO. Many other women have served on VVA’s National Board as Officers and Directors, chaired national and local committees, and headed VVA state councils and local chapters. 

On the national level women serve and contribute on all VVA national committees, while also working with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. They have written and delivered VVA national legislative testimony before the House and Senate. Additionally they reach out to other VSO women veteran representatives, nonprofit organizations, and women veteran groups. 

The women of VVA move through all levels of our government, changing the landscape for women veterans at the federal, state, and local levels, and providing information to all these political representatives. They work in their communities. They help ensure that VVA’s message gets to all veterans.

The women of VVA have been presidential appointees, including Dr. Linda Schwartz, who was the Assistant Secretary of Policy and Planning for the VA. We have been appointed to Federal Department and Secretarial Advisory Committees, including the VA Advisory Committees on Women Veterans, Homeless Veterans, and Readjustment Counseling.

It’s not difficult to identify the women of VVA. Just look around your chapters, your state councils, the National Board, and committees. We really are everywhere. Though the field is far too large to list all who have given their effort, energy, expertise, and experience, I would like to recognize a few who touched my life and brought me along on this life-altering experience. In addition to Lynda Van Devanter and Mary Stout, these women began as my mentors and then moved to be my sisters-in-arms: Lily Adams, Lee Ann Combs, Leslie Feldstein, Martha Green, Joan Furey, Sara McVicker, Sandy Miller, Jill Mishkell, Cheryl “Nikki” Nicole, Linda Schwartz, and Sandie Wilson.

These and other VVA women leaders have worked—and continue to work—on a wide-reaching and broad array of issues related to medical and mental health care as well as veterans benefits. Most recently, attention has turned to the multifaceted problem of military sexual trauma (MST), suicide, addiction, and homelessness. We have lobbied for legislation to allow members of the National Guard and Reserve forces who experience MST to receive care, without cost, from VA medical facilities. VVA has worked to set up MST-related specialized inpatient and residential VA treatment programs, and for legislation that would reassign complaints of MST by a service member to someone outside her or his immediate chain of command.

We have set on a course that works with Congress, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and other federal agencies such as the Departments of Labor and Housing and Urban Development, as well as state houses and local municipalities, to provide oversight and accountability on behalf of all veterans of this country.   

And so we continue
We stand proud

In putting this article together I started to reflect on my roots in VVA. I walked into a VVA Chapter 67 meeting not even aware of what it was. The greeting I received was a bit intimidating, and members overwhelmed me with excitement: They had a woman veteran! I had no idea it was such a big deal. But it was for them.

I came to realize it was for me, too. It altered the direction of my life forever. It gave me a cause, a direction, a purpose. I became a part of the fight to right the wrong that was being inflicted upon us. I became who I am—a woman veteran. The rest is history.





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