The rising ranks of servicewomen returning from Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade has changed the nature of care needed at the Veterans Affairs Department — but the system has yet to fully adapt, advocates say.
“VA hasn’t taken adequate steps to prepare itself for the huge influx of women veterans,” said Greg Jacob, policy director at Service Women’s Action Network, a nonpartisan advocacy group for women in the military.
Military operations, beginning in Afghanistan in 2001, followed by the U.S. engagement in Iraq in 2003, were fought on unconventional battlefields — wars unlike any others in which the unpredictable, non-linear nature of battle has put women on the front lines.
With more females in combat roles and more overall opportunities, the number of women joining the modern military has jumped.
More than 200,000 women currently serve in the military. Since 2000, more than 390,000 female veterans have used the VA health care system.
For VA, that has brought an increased need for general services for women as well as treatment for an increasing number of serious, combat-related injuries among women veterans.
Women are the fastest growing demographic at VA, with their numbers in the department’s health care system more than doubling since 2000. That population is projected to double again in the next decade.
Dr. Patricia Hayes, who has led the VA’s national Women’s Health office since 2007, said VA has recognized these trends and “has been ramping up our services.”
Under Hayes, VA has trained over 2,000 additional primary women’s health care providers since 2008 and has replaced a fragmented and inadequate system with a “one-stop” health care model that uses a primary care provider to administer blood tests, mental health services, gynecological care and mammograms.
Still, Hayes acknowledges that more must be done. “More resources are needed for women at a very steep rate,” she said.
Navy veteran Jamie Livingston, 32, would agree. She suffered a stress fracture to a vertebra in her back while on active duty in Italy in 2007.
After she returned home, the pain got worse. When she sought treatment at her VA in El Paso, Texas, her doctor said she needed a back brace.
But the hospital didn’t have back braces for women. The prosthetic technician gave her a man’s brace instead, and it didn’t fit. The technician said it was because she had “a large hip-to-waist ratio.”
Joy Ilem, deputy national legislative director of Disabled American Veterans, noted that VA has made progress on services for female veterans in recent years.
“They’ve identified the gaps, they’ve identified a plan of action,” Ilem said.
But, she added, “That takes resources,” including “additional attention from the leadership.”
“It’s going to have to come from the top down,” she said.