VA looks to break barriers as more women seek services
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.”
Kathleen Lekko, a Marine Corps veteran, and Beth Carlin, a veteran of the U.S. Army, attend at Quinnipiac University.