With rise in de­mand, VA step­ping up ser­vices for fe­male vet­er­ans

Austin American-Statesman - - A12 WORLD & NATION -

WASHINGTON — About 1.8 mil­lion women have served in the U.S. mil­i­tary, and with 245,000 fe­male sol­diers, sailors, Marines and air­men de­ployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s es­ti­mated that within a decade, women will make up 16 per­cent of all vet­er­ans.

Yet un­til re­cently, some health clin­ics for vet­er­ans did not have sep­a­rate bath­rooms for women. Some doc­tors who treat re­turn­ing ser­vice mem­bers haven’t kept up with med­i­cal ad­vances on is­sues such as sex­ual trauma, pros­thet­ics and menopause. Some Vet­er­ans Af­fairs com­put­ers still spit out data mis­tak­ing fe­male vet­er­ans for wives of men who fought.

The Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs is turn­ing its re­sources to women as the govern­ment braces for an in­creas­ing de­mand for ser­vices from fe­male vet­er­ans.

On Wed­nes­day, clin­i­cians, ben­e­fits ex­perts, VA lead­ers and vet­er­ans from across the coun­try dis­cussed the depart­ment’s ef­forts and the need to do more for women.

“We are late, and the surge in women vet­er­ans has be­gun and will con­tinue,” VA Sec­re­tary Eric Shin­seki told the crowd of 175 gath­ered at the Women in Mil­i­tary Ser­vice for Amer­ica Me­mo­rial at Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery. “Time is not on our side.”

The re­tired four-star gen­eral and for­mer Army chief of staff has made in­creas­ing ser­vices for women a top pri­or­ity, se­cur­ing $217 mil­lion in gen­der-spe­cific pro­grams for the next bud­get year, a 21 per­cent in­crease from 2009. The in­creased in­vest­ment is aimed at pro­vid­ing bet­ter care and more pri­vacy and se­cu­rity for fe­male pa­tients.

The in­sur­gency style of war­fare in Iraq and Afghanistan, where women driv­ing in con­voys can ex­pe­ri­ence the same trau­mas as if they were di­rectly in com­bat, has upped the ante for the vet­er­ans agency, Shin­seki said.

He also ac­knowl­edged the “de­bil­i­tat­ing ef­fects” of sex­ual as­saults and ha­rass­ment of women in the mil­i­tary — as many as 21 per­cent of women who seek VA care re­port sex­ual trauma — and said his agency is “com­mit­ted to pro­vid­ing world-class health care and ser­vices” for vic­tims.

Also Wed­nes­day, Rep. Bob Fil­ner, D-Ca., chair­man of the House Com­mit­tee on Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs, in­tro­duced leg­is­la­tion that would cre­ate a “bill of rights” for fe­male vet­er­ans.

To­day, women rep­re­sent 8 per­cent of all vet­er­ans. About half en­roll for VA care, a num­ber that jumped 20 per­cent in 2009 alone, of­fi­cials said, in part be­cause many women have lost ben­e­fits as they have lost jobs in the bad econ­omy.

The agency also launched a study last fall of women who served in the Viet­nam War to ex­plore the ef­fects on their mental and phys­i­cal health.

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