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Meeting the Unique Needs of Female Service Members

March 16, 2021 by Kate Michael
(Photo by Master Sgt. Jeffrey Schultze 195th Wing Public Affairs)

WASHINGTON — Women may be the fastest-growing cohort of the U.S. armed forces, but this critical part of our modern military may also be the most overlooked. Not only do female veterans have unique needs regarding their military to civilian transition, access to care, mental health resources, military sexual trauma, and financial wellness, but many don’t even feel respected for their service. 

The Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization, joined with the Wounded Warrior Project’s Women Warrior Initiative to share survey data and insights from WWP’s engagement with about 5,000 female service veterans who detailed their personal experience both in service and upon returning to civilian life. 

“One of the most incredible decisions that I made was joining the Army,” said Yomari Cruz, WWP volunteer and medically retired service member who experienced trauma during her service in Afghanistan and returned to civilian life with PTSD. “It taught me to have tough skin and endure certain challenges,” she said, adding, “[but] thank God my commander was a female and she really listened.”

Cruz admitted that her return to civilian life was a shock. She dealt with anger issues, feared public areas, and couldn’t handle conversations with people. An introduction to WWP was “a pivotal moment in my life… WWP gave me the support services and care to [address] PTSD challenges and transition back into my civilian life.”

Cruz is not alone in feeling neglected by the system, both during and upon her return. A Women Warrior Initiative survey showed that 49% didn’t even feel their health care needs were being met by the VA in addition to concerns about harassment, suicide, and military sexual trauma (MST).

“Ninety-five percent are using VA health care,” said WWP Chief Program Officer Jennifer Silva, “but less than half feel their needs are being met.” 

From complaints of poor quality care, limited appointment availability, women’s care services not being provided, recurrent denial of disability claims, high turnover of trusted VA staff, and even problems finding childcare during appointment times, advocates are looking to take steps to produce some positive change for women warriors. 

“We’ve been making progress with women in clinics and programs specific for women and their needs,” said WWP Physical Health and Wellness Executive Vice President Tracey Farrell. “And there have been new shifts since the Deborah Samson Act was passed last cycle.” Still, she stressed that setting up an environment that was safe and welcoming for all veterans, including educating providers about MST, and increasing appointment hours as well as availability of tele-health, would produce major gains in how the nation cares for its female veterans. 

The Deborah Samson Bill attempts to break some of the norms and culture within the VA by improving access to care and benefits for survivors of MST of all genders, expanding MST counseling to former Guard and Reserve members, allowing the VA to treat the physical health conditions of MST, and improving the claims process for MST survivors at the Veterans Benefits Administration, among other assistances.

Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Veteran’s Affairs Health Subcommittee, started the Women’s Veterans Taskforce that culminated in the Deborah Samson Bill. She said that while she “unequivocally” still recommends women join the service, “if I was talking with them, then I would tell them what I know and they should go in with eyes wide open.”

“Attacking the culture within DoD is 90% of the battle,” Brownley said, though she admitted “changing culture is really a hard thing to do. You need consistent, laser focused leadership… and honestly, we just haven’t had it.”

Leadership, particularly women in leadership, may be the solution not only to female veterans’ VA woes, but also to their feelings of disrespect within the service as they grow within its ranks. 

The U.S. military now has more women high-ranking officers than ever, including a woman as deputy secretary of Defense, but Brownley said “we have a long ways to go before we get to any sort of parity of women officers to men officers. 

“I am convinced that as more women become officers, the management of the operation is going to change.” 

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