By Natalie Bailey - Medill News Service
With her copper hair, pale skin and small stature, Army Reserve Sgt. Jennifer Hunt, 26, stands out in the Veterans Affairs Department hospital waiting room filled with Vietnam War-era veterans.
She’s there for treatment of shrapnel injuries she received two years ago, after a roadside bomb hit her Humvee as she drove through West Rashid in Baghdad.
She said it’s not uncommon for her to be the only woman in the hospital waiting room, and to hear comments like, “You’re the prettiest vet I’ve seen all day.”
Although that brings unwanted attention, at least it shows the men take her for a veteran. Camouflaged by their gender both inside and outside VA hospital doors, women in the military are routinely mistaken for spouses and daughters — anything but combat veterans.
“It makes us feel invisible,” said Army Reserve Staff Sgt. Genevieve Chase, 32, founder of American Women Veterans. “It makes these women feel like their service didn’t matter.”
Now making up an estimated 15 percent of the armed forces, women are increasingly assuming roles and duties that put them in combat situations — partly because gender barriers continue to fall, and partly because of the nature of the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But some say VA has been slow to reflect the dramatic shift in the health care needs of female troops.
This means more women are returning to a system of care that doesn’t understand their issues. Hunt said her VA doctor “was very surprised by my injuries. She said she didn’t know females were actually on the front line.”
For the past few years, a campaign to reform the VA health care system has resulted in small victories. But a major triumph came in May when President Obama signed several reforms into law, including a task force to report on the needs of female veterans.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq already have added 100,000 female veterans to the system, according to VA. In less than 10 years, the population of female veterans has nearly doubled to 7.8 percent of all vets. And there are more to come with the planned withdrawal of troops from Iraq this summer.
The nature of these extended wars has forced VA to reassess how it cares for these veterans and how treatment may have to be adjusted for women.
What appears on paper to be a clear prohibition against women in combat blurs amid the reality of modern warfare. In combat support jobs — civil affairs, intelligence, military police, transportation and other skills — women increasingly are outside the wire, facing as much danger as male troops.
“This is a different war. Before, we didn’t have women in combat roles,” said Dr. Robin Peck, who oversees the women’s program at Washington’s VA hospital and four community clinics.
And VA “is still playing catch-up,” said Chase, who developed post-traumatic stress disorder after a roadside bomb hit her vehicle in Afghanistan.
Chase and Hunt, who works for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, get medical care at the VA hospital in Washington, which Hunt described as one of the more progressive in meeting women’s needs.
Within a year, the hospital plans to break ground on a 5,000-square-foot women’s wing with a goal of creating a “one-stop shop” for all women’s health care needs.
“Not only will we have more space, we will be able to provide more services within a particular area,” said Gale Bell, the hospital’s women’s veteran program manager and clinical coordinator. The main purpose is to provide female veterans with dignity, privacy and access to services they need, she said.
In May, at a “Ladies’ Night” event at the hospital promoting the groundbreaking, Patty Shinseki, wife of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, thanked women for their service as they arrived.
“Hearing the words, ‘Thank you for your service,’ was huge,” said Army Maj. Marie Jenkins, tears in her eyes. “It’s important to many people here not to have men around, just to have female vets.”
The waiting room
Over the next few months, veterans across the nation should expect to see pilot programs for child care at VA facilities and women-only retreats for those returning from deployment. The law signed by Obama also provides for unprecedented care to babies born to mothers who are under VA care — up to seven days after birth.
The provisions were largely drawn from a female veterans’ health care bill sponsored last year by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
“I got involved with issue when I noticed how invisible female veterans were,” Murray said. “There’s a knowledge gap in dealing with women’s issues, and there’s a lot to change.”
The new law, together with the wide scope of the task force that will report on women’s needs, has encouraged veterans. “We’re not just saying help veterans, we’re telling you how, we’re telling you who and we’re telling you in what ways,” Chase said.
But while pilot programs are to be in place by October, VA is not clear on specifics. And the task force on women’s needs is contingent on the completion of a final report of the National Survey of Women’s Veterans from 2007 to 2008. VA was unable to say when that report might be finished.
VA hospitals are used to such holdups, said Jim Gleisburg, spokesman for the VA Medical Center in Leavenworth, Kan.
“There has been a slow increase over many years for women to get the type of care they deserve,” he said.
But the first step — getting women to feel comfortable defining themselves as veterans and seeking help — is being taken, Chase said.
“If you are a woman who served in the military, then you need to understand that you are a veteran, and that there are so many other women who know what it’s like to feel looked over or not acknowledged for their service,” she said.