Per­cent­age of women vet­er­ans on the rise.

The Norwalk Hour - - FRONT PAGE - By Clare Dig­nan

While the to­tal vet­eran pop­u­la­tion is pre­dicted to de­cline, the per­cent of women 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 all re­stric­tions on the roles women can per­form in the mil­i­tary and more women con­tinue to en­list in all the same jobs as their male coun­ter­parts, in­clud­ing front-line com­bat posts. But ex­it­ing 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 ser­vice. Since the Depart­ment of Vet­eran 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 re­lated to women and men­tal health care spe­cific to women’s strug­gles.

“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.

At any VA, there is a women’s health cen­ter and gen­der-spe­cific care for women where they of­fer pri­mary care 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 that 60 per­cent of women placed a greater im­por­tance on hav­ing a clinic for just women to re­ceive care.

“The VA is still a male dom­i­nated 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 MST groups and a ded­i­cated clinic and cam­paign to make it more wel­com­ing for those women who served.

The other ob­sta­cle for women who have ex­pe­ri­enced sex­ual trauma is they have a hard time with crowds and trust­ing peo­ple, he said. “It’s a fac­tual ob­ser­va­tion that Amer­i­can cul­ture is def­i­nitely not as sup­port­ive as it could be of women who dis­close sex­ual trauma,” DeViva said.

Mil­i­tary sex­ual trauma dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fects women vets, with one in four women say­ing it hap­pened to them while in the mil­i­tary, Adams said. “Be­cause we know that, we cre­ated trauma in­formed care and one that’s sen­si­tive,” she said.

In 1994, the VA first man­dated that all cen­ters have a women vet­er­ans co­or­di­na­tor to ad­vo­cate for women and their ser­vice needs and a more pro­gres­sive law was passed that ex­panded care for MST, elim­i­nat­ing the time re­quire­ment on el­i­gi­bil­ity and limit on length of treat­ment. They also ex­panded the law to in­clude care for phys­i­cal con­di­tions that re­sulted from sex­ual trauma and ex­tended el­i­gi­bil­ity to men.

“That’s why it’s nice to have a women’s clinic, to have a space where she’s around other women who may have ex­pe­ri­enced some­thing she has,” Adams said. “It’s re­ally wel­com­ing and we want to cre­ate safety and pri­vacy.”

When any­one leaves the mil­i­tary af­ter ser­vice, they go through a pro­gram that ex­plains how to tran­si­tion to civil­ian life and 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 some­one served or what branch they served in, they might not get the same thor­ough­ness of 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 US Army in Alaska.

Whereas Kath­leen Lekko, a for­mer Marine who was sta­tioned in Camp Le­je­une in North Carolina, started ac­cess­ing her ben­e­fits while she was still on her base and got her 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 while they’re still ac­tive mil­i­tary.

She and Car­lin both 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 ac­cess­ing them. Parry said the in­for­ma­tion she got was con­densed and didn’t tell her what she needed to know.

“You’re just get­ting out and ship­ping your stuff back home, you’re not think­ing about your ben­e­fits,” she said. “You’re not think­ing about all of this, and you don’t think the pa­per­work is go­ing to be that con­fus­ing, so re­ally it’s vet­er­ans help­ing vet­er­ans is how peo­ple get their ben­e­fits most of the time.”

Vet­er­ans who don’t have in­for­ma­tion about ser­vices be­come at greater risk for be­com­ing home­less 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.

In ad­di­tion to a lack of in­for­ma­tion, a chal­lenge spe­cific to fe­male vet­er­ans ac­cess­ing ser­vices such as health care is their po­si­tions 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 com­mu­ni­ty­based 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.

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 re­cently 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.”

James said the com­mu­ni­ca­tion and out­reach by the VA is get­ting bet­ter and net­works of vet­er­ans are get­ting stronger. “They’re do­ing a good job but every sys­tem needs im­prove.”

“I want to con­tinue to find ways to get the word out to women to know they’re wel­come to come to the VA and we have ser­vices,” Adams said. “In find­ing new and creative ways to do that, I’m look­ing to de­velop fur­ther ways to find them in the com­mu­nity.”

While the VA con­tin­ues to ex­pand and im­prove its ser­vices for women vet­er­ans, out­side of a mil­i­tary en­vi­ron­ment, some women don’t feel they’re ser­vice gets rec­og­nized in the way men’s does.

“For fe­males, we’re just of­ten over­looked,” Parry said. Peo­ple will of­ten look at men and ask about their mil­i­tary ex­pe­ri­ence, but don’t give the same con­sid­er­a­tion to women vets, she said. “They just as­sume the woman is not…. It’s not the fact that they think we can’t serve, it just passes them by. It’s across all gen­er­a­tions.”

A com­mon ex­pe­ri­ence for women who are ac­tive in the mil­i­tary and those who have left is be­ing mis­taken for be­ing some­one’s spouse and not the vet­eran. Lekko, Car­lin, Parry, Ro­driguez and Kelle­her all said they had ex­pe­ri­enced that.

“I don’t know how we’ll ever get out of that,” Ro­driguez said.

“It’s frus­trat­ing, but I know what I did and know what my ex­pe­ri­ence has been,” Kelle­her said. “I didn’t join for recog­ni­tion and didn’t de­ploy for recog­ni­tion. In the end, what mat­ters is the sol­diers I served with and peers re­spect me.” She said in her ex­pe­ri­ence, women vet­er­ans oth­er­wise get rec­og­nized.

“In gen­eral, the more evolved as a so­ci­ety we are, we are say­ing ‘men and women’ in uni­form, and I don’t feel we’re not rec­og­nized,” James said. “It may not be the first thing peo­ple think about me but I haven’t felt marginal­ized. But my ex­pe­ri­ence might not be typ­i­cal of every woman vet.”

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