Female veterans face woefully inadequate care

In 2004, then captain – now congresswoman – Tammy Duckworth was piloting a Blackhawk helicopter in Iraq when it was shot down. She survived but lost both of her legs. When she awoke, in only a hospital gown, she was supplied with a “comfort kit,” some basics that are given to wounded troops. Included in the kit, besides slippers that she could no longer use, were a pair of men’s jockey shorts. Comfort kits simply weren’t made for women. Just for men. It is a story that perfectly illustrates the multitude of issues facing our women who serve.

Female veterans suffer post-traumatic stress disorder at twice the rate as male soldiers, and endure higher rates of joblessness and homelessness. And, because women tend to be caregivers themselves, they tend to postpone their own care in deference to the care they provide husbands, children and parents. Further complicating the female soldier’s return from combat to civilian life is that an estimated one in five have suffered sexual trauma.

In September, DAV (Disabled American Veterans) published a study that revealed “America’s nearly 300,000 women Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are put at risk by a system designed for and dominated by male veterans.”

But the problems go deeper than the men’s comfort kits with which Duckworth was presented. According to DAV, one-third of the VA medical centers don’t have a gynecologist on staff and 90 percent of Community Based Outpatient Clinics lack a designated women’s health provider. Thirty-one percent of VA centers cannot provide adequate services for military sexual trauma, yet one in five women veterans seen at VA screen positive for some form of such trauma.

The VA and the Department of Defense have difficulty providing gender-specific peer support, group therapy and specialized inpatient mental health care designed to meet the needs of women. Further, women who have lost limbs are less likely to have a prosthetic that fits properly. As such, while there are far fewer women veteran amputees, they use health care more often than their male counterparts. Several of these women are also now becoming mothers, further complicating their prosthetic and general care needs.

It is worth noting that some improvements have been made under the Obama administration, For instance, each veterans care center now has a Women Veterans Program Manager, whose job it is to start bridging the gap. Additionally, the Women Veterans Health Program was placed under the VA’s Office of Patient Care Services, allowing it to have more impact on the patient-specific care that women receive. It’s a great start, but more must be done.

From better collaboration between the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs for the purpose of coordinating care for women veterans, to family counseling for returning women veterans, to providing child care for veterans, we have no shortage of issues to tackle.

On particularly worthwhile idea, backed by DAV and others, is continued and increased congressional funding for a women veterans’ retreat program run by the department’s Readjustment Counseling Service. This program focuses upon stress reduction, improving coping skills and improving women’s sense of psychological well-being and boasts very high participant improvements in these skill sets.

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