VA looks to break bar­ri­ers as more women seek ser­vices

The News-Times (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Clare Dig­nan

While the to­tal vet­eran pop­u­la­tion is pre­dicted to de­cline, the per­cent of fe­male vet­er­ans is in­creas­ing. They con­sti­tute the fastest grow­ing vet­eran pop­u­la­tion in the United States, with about 10 per­cent of the 20 mil­lion vet­er­ans be­ing women.

In 2016, the Depart­ment of De­fense lifted re­stric­tions on the roles women can per­form in the mil­i­tary and more women con­tinue to en­list in the same jobs as men, in­clud­ing front-line com­bat posts. But af­ter ac­tive duty, women vet­er­ans have unique needs.

Women leav­ing the mil­i­tary are more likely to be younger than men, care­tak­ers of chil­dren, un­mar­ried and un­em­ployed af­ter ser- vice. Since the Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs estab­lished gen­der-spe­cific care for women in the 1990s, they’ve worked to ex­pand ser­vices and ac­cess to ad­dress women vet­er­ans needs, in­clud­ing pro­vid­ing re­pro­duc­tive care, ag­ing care and men­tal health care spe­cific to women.

“We know from talk­ing to

women vet­er­ans there are a num­ber of bar­ri­ers spe­cific to women,” West Haven VA Women Vet­er­ans Pro­gram Co­or­di­na­tor Lynette Adams said. “Women are of­ten care­tak­ers for chil­dren and spouses. Be­ing the pri­mary care­taker means women are busy — they’re in school, work­ing, a mother. Balanc­ing all that is chal­leng­ing when ac­cess­ing care.

Vet­er­ans Af­fairs hos­pi­tals have a women’s health cen­ter and gen­der-spe­cific pri­mary care for women and men­tal health clin­ics de­signed to meet the needs of women vets as well as a mil­i­tary trauma ex­pert and re­pro­duc­tive health ex­perts. In a study by the VA that looked at bar­ri­ers to VA health care among women, re­searchers found 60 per­cent of women placed a greater im­por­tance on hav­ing a clinic for just women.

While not ev­ery woman uses the Women’s Cen­ter, many said it was im­por­tant to have the op­tion in case they had trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ences with men in the mil­i­tary.

“The VA is still a male­dom­i­nated place,” said VA Mil­i­tary Sex­ual Trauma Co­or­di­na­tor Ja­son DeViva. “For some­one with a his­tory of trauma, it can be hard to come to a place with that many men.” DeViva said the VA has women-only mil­i­tary sex­ual trauma groups and a ded­i­cated clinic and cam­paign to make the VA more wel­com­ing for women.

In 1994, the VA first man­dated all cen­ters have a fe­male vet­er­ans co­or­di­na­tor to advocate for women and their ser­vice needs. A more pro­gres­sive law was passed that ex­panded care for mil­i­tary sex­ual trauma, elim­i­nat­ing the time re­quire­ment for el­i­gi­bil­ity and lim­its on length of treat­ment.

Even with a male-dom­i­nated VA, many women vet­er­ans said they never felt un­com­fort­able there and gen­er­ally re­ceived good care. One is­sue, though, was out­side the women’s clinic, the turnover rate of doc­tors and staff is so high, build­ing a re­la­tion­ship is frus­trat­ing and dif­fi­cult, for­mer Navy gun­ner Brandy Parry said.

“As soon as you start to get to know some­one and build that trust, they’re gone, so you never feel like you can re­ally open up,” she said.

In ad­di­tion to the in­creas­ing pop­u­la­tion of fe­male vet­er­ans, Adams said they’re see­ing more women come to the VA for care, “and I think it’s in­di­rect response to VA de­vel­op­ing ser­vices and peo­ple like me go­ing out to the com­mu­nity.” How­ever, get­ting in­for­ma­tion to women vet­er­ans about their ben­e­fits is a chal­lenge for the VA and a bar­rier for vets, she said.

When any­one leaves the mil­i­tary, they go through a pro­gram that ex­plains the tran­si­tion to civil­ian life and how to ac­cess ben­e­fits. It’s some­times re­ferred to as Tran­si­tion As­sis­tance Pro­gram or Tran­si­tion Readi­ness Sem­i­nar. This is the Depart­ment of De­fense’s ef­fort to ed­u­cate vet­er­ans about their ben­e­fits be­fore they leave. But de­pend­ing on where and in which branch some­one served, they might not get the same com­plete in­for­ma­tion.

“I didn’t know I could go to the VA un­til I got out, and it was a much harder process to do any­thing with the VA once I was out than if I started claim­ing when I was in,” said Beth Car­lin, who served the U.S. Army in Alaska.

Whereas Kath­leen Lekko, aMarine who was sta­tioned in Camp Le­je­une in North Carolina, started ac­cess­ing her ben­e­fits while she was still on her base and re­ceived ben­e­fits quickly and eas­ily af­ter she got out in 2017.

Lekko said ac­cess­ing VA ben­e­fits is harder and can take longer for peo­ple who don’t know they can start claim­ing ben­e­fits near the end of their ser­vice. She and Car­lin use their G.I. Bill to at­tend Quin­nip­iac Univer­sity.

In the Na­tional Guard, when mem­bers leave they’re re­quired to go through post mo­bi­liza­tion Yel­low Rib­bon Pro­gram in which providers come talk to mem­bers and it’s “drilled into you what your ben­e­fits are,” Alyssa Kelleher, di­rec­tor of Vet­eran Af­fairs and Pro­grams at the Univer­sity of Con­necti­cut and a ma­jor in the Con­necti­cut Army Na­tional Guard.

The dis­par­ity among vet­er­ans who know what their ben­e­fits are can be­come a bar­rier to ac­cess. Parry said the in­for­ma­tion she re­ceived was con­densed and didn’t tell her ev­ery­thing she needed to know.

Vet­er­ans who don’t have in­for­ma­tion about ser­vices are at greater risk for home­less­ness be­cause they’re not in touch with health care and job as­sis­tance, said Anne James, a vet­er­ans ser­vice of­fi­cer with Con­necti­cut Depart­ment of Vet­eran Af­fairs and for­mer com­bat medic in the U.S. Army.

“Get­ting them en­rolled in VA health care and men­tal health coun­sel­ing can go a long way be­cause they’re get­ting coun­sel­ing for is­sues that may lead to prob­lems on the job or in their apart- ment,” James said. “The chal­lenge to home­less­ness is not be­ing con­nected with ser­vices and get­ting that good un­der­pin­ning.”

Achal­lenge spe­cific to fe­male vet­er­ans ac­cess­ing ser­vices such as health care is their po­si­tion as pri­mary care­givers.

“When we’re talk­ing about women vet­er­ans who need hous­ing as­sis­tance, a par­tic­u­lar chal­lenge they face is hav­ing small chil­dren,” James said. Ac­cord­ing to a VA study, 42 per­cent of women who used VA health care re­ported that find­ing child care to at­tend med­i­cal ap­point­ments was “some­what hard” or “very hard.” Women who aren’t mar­ried had even more dif­fi­culty.

“The fact that they’re pri­mary care­givers is the big­gest hurdle fac­ing fe­male vets that are faced with home­less­ness,” James said. More­over, safe hous­ing is scarce for fe­male vets with chil­dren. One in Bridge­port, Fe­male Sol­diers: For­got­ten Heroes, is Con­necti­cut’s first and only com­mu­nity-based tran­si­tional home ex­clu­sively for home­less fe­male vet­er­ans and their young chil­dren. The Con­necti­cut Vet­er­ans Home and Hospi­tal in Rocky Hill is an­other tran­si­tional hous­ing op­tion for fe­male vets.

“The prob­lem is, there are a lot of cri­sis-in­ter­ven­tion pro­grams, but in long term, there are less sup­port­ive en­vi­ron­ments,” James said.

“Be­cause women are the pri­mary care­givers, women fac­ing em­ploy­ment have to be con­cerned with child care is­sues, the ex­pense, the tim­ing of it,” James said.

James said she was for­tu­nate to have the sup­port of her fam­ily and her hus­band’s fam­ily when she got out in 1992 af­ter she had a baby. They both used the G.I. Bill to go to school and re­ceived em­ploy­ment as­sis­tance. “If we had to worry about be­ing home­less, it would be dif­fi­cult to ac­cess those ben­e­fits,” she said. “Be­ing able to tran­si­tion in a sup­port­ive at­mos­phere is a pre­dic­tor of suc­cess. For peo­ple who don’t have that,.it’s nearly im­pos­si­ble.”

Clare Dig­nan / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

Kath­leen Lekko, a Marine Corps vet­eran, and Beth Car­lin, a vet­eran of the U.S. Army, at­tend at Quin­nip­iac Univer­sity.

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