When I came home from Iraq in 2004, I often felt invisible as a woman soldier. When I left the Army to care for my combat-wounded spouse a year later, that same sense of not being fully recognized or treated equally persisted when I first sought care at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). That's not particularly surprising: Back in 2005, while women made up 15% of the military, we were less than 6% of patients getting care in the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). Many providers and facilities were ill-prepared to serve us equitably. My frustration drove me to speak out about the barriers I encountered, and today, I'm honored to have the opportunity to advocate on behalf of women within the system as Director of VA's Center for Women Veterans (CWV).
How is VA doing today in contrast with when I first came into the system 12 years ago? The VHA now provides health care to over 500,000 women veterans at 146 medical centers and 985 outpatient clinics nationwide. VA outperforms all other sectors of care in providing gender-specific care for women veterans, with significantly higher cervical cancer and breast cancer screening rates (see Appendix B of this report [PDF, 3.28 MB]).
All VA Medical Centers (VAMCs) have at least one Dedicated Women's Health Provider (DWHP). VA has trained over 3,000 providers in women's health and continues to train hundreds more annually. VA provides prenatal and preconception care, maternity care services, and seven days of newborn care for women veterans, all managed by dedicated Maternity Care Coordinators. VA provides eligible women veterans with supplies and support I wish I'd gotten as a new mom in the private sector, including a breast pump, three nursing bras annually, lanolin cream, disposable nursing pads, and breastmilk storage bags.
To continually improve our ability to provide high-quality, evidence-based, culturally competent mental health care to women, earlier this year VA held a National Women's Mental Health Mini-Residency where approximately 200 participants from across the country were trained on gender-specific aspects of psychotherapies and psychiatric medications, trauma, integrating peer counselors, and more. And while women are only 9.5% of veterans, a full 25% of Vet Center staff members are women veterans who served in a war zone. VA provides all care related to military sexual trauma (MST) free of charge; all veterans are screened and each VAMC has an MST Coordinator.
My mission in CWV is not just professional — it's also deeply personal. I'm acutely aware of how VA can facilitate reintegration and success as a veteran who now uses VA health care exclusively, has a VA-backed home loan, used the GI Bill to go to graduate school, and is also the caregiver to a disabled veteran. All women veterans should know about their eligibility for benefits and services and be treated with dignity and respect when they come to VA.
We recognize that there is still work to do, and the upcoming National Women Veterans Summit, to be held August 25–26 in Houston, TX, will bring together 800 women veterans and their supporters to identify challenges facing women veterans and disseminate best practices in addressing them. With community partnerships and focused effort, VA can continue to improve our ability to reach and care for the women who have served our great nation.