Veterans

Report: Military, VA Must Improve Policies to Help Female Veterans

Military.com

 (Military.com)

A prominent veterans advocacy group released a report Wednesday that found female veterans face a higher rate of unemployment and homelessness compared to non-veterans, and one-in-five female veterans experienced sexual trauma.

Disabled American Veterans released their report in a ceremony on Capitol Hill outlining 27 key policies or changes the group recommended in order to ensure female veterans are able to access the same services and benefits as their male counterparts. 

Disability disparities between male and female veterans were also highlighted. The agency placed a specific emphasis on fair adjudication of female veterans' claims and treatment that was gender specific rather than treatment designed for male veterans and then adapted to female veterans. 

Titled "Women Veterans: The Long Journey Home," the report studied the policies and cultures across multiple federal agencies to include the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense to see how female veterans were treated upon returning home. 

Recommendations from the report covered topics like culture change, health care, military sexual trauma, disability compensation, justice, family and community, education, transition assistance, employment, and housing.

A significant recommendation was to extend lifetime VA health benefits to all combat veterans – one of the few recommendations that was gender neutral. Currently, veterans receive five years of health care following separation from service.  

However, Undersecretary of Benefits for the VA Allison Hickey made note that any veteran who has a health issue which originated during their service is eligible to come to the VA should that condition worsen or prompt an additional health concern at any time in their lives. 

DAV officials expect the number of female veterans to increase as the military sees more women join. Meanwhile, the services that exist today for veterans are mostly designed to serve men, not women. 

Currently, women make up 20 percent of new recruits, 14.5 percent of the 1.4 million active duty military and 18 percent of the 850,000 reserve force. Roughly 280,000 women have served in Iraq or Afghanistian since September 11, 2001 and the number of women veterans is expected to grow to 11 percent of the veteran population by 2020.

The report was critical of existing policies and cultures at the Defense Department and the VA, though DAV's National Legislative Director Joy Ilem pointed out that the agency viewed the VA as their partner in finding solutions to these issues. In fact, two senior VA officials spoke at the event -- Hickey and interim Under-Secretary for Health Dr. Carolyn Clancy.

The study and report was done with the help of Sigma Health Consulting, LLC led by Dr. Frances Murphy, who said that most VA health programs are "designed to address the needs of men." She also highlighted the increase in reports of sexual assault within the military and called on the Defense Department to eradicate sexual assault within their ranks. 

"DoD can no longer be at war with women on this issue," she said. 

Murphy also said that female veterans face different reintegration issues than men. Female veterans require gender specific health care and the current models are not equipped to deal with either of these needs. One in five female veterans have gone without needed care in the previous year. She also pointed out that one third of VA medical centers don't have a gynecologist on staff. 

"We have a long way to go before female veterans get equal care and support," said DAV Executive Director Gary Augustine.

The event was held in the Russell Senate Office Building and featured participants in a documentary about female veterans entitled Journey to Normal. Producer/director JulieHera DeStefano followed several female service members for two years after their deployments. The women attended the DAV rollout of the report spoke Wednesday at the rollout about their time in service, the film, and changes that they recommended to ensure equality within the ranks. 

Devon Reyes, a West Point graduate and former Army captain, deployed to Afghanistan twice. She was attracted to the film project because she wanted to be a voice in something that "did not portray female veterans as victims."

Reyes said she didn't know what to expect in the beginning, but felt the film was a "catalyst for dialogue" about the role of women in the military and the care and support they received when they left military service. The event was the first time she had seen any of the footage. After viewing the 20 minute highlight reel, said she was "floored" by the professionalism and content of the movie. 

-- Sarah Blansett can be reached at Sarah.Blansett@monster.com.