By Jonathan Kaupanger
The U.S. census in 1980 was the first time American women were asked about their military service, and an unexpected 1.2 million women reported they had served. Not long after the census, WWII’s Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was granted veteran status by Congress.
Two years later, a government study found that women veterans didn’t have equal access to VA benefits; when they were treated at VA facilities, they didn’t receive complete physical exams; VA wasn’t providing gynecological care and; women veterans were not properly informed of their benefits under the law.
Another three years go by and there’s a survey of women veterans commissioned by VA that found 57% of women veterans did not know they were eligible for services, benefits, and programs. Another worrisome discovery from the survey was that women veterans reported twice the rates of cancer as their civilian counterparts, gynecological cancers being most common.
It’s not until 1986 that VA benefits are expanded to include mammography, gynecological and hormonal care. In 1992 a law gets passed that expands the context of Post-Traumatic Stress to include sexual trauma associated with military duty. Finally, in 1994, the Center for Women Veterans (CWV) was created and VA funds the first national study on the quality of life of women veterans who use VA services.
CWV was established by an act of Congress to monitor and coordinate programs and benefits for women. The Ccnter also pushes for a cultural transformation – both inside the VA and with the public, and to help raise awareness of the responsibility to treat women veterans with dignity and respect. “Because we were such a tiny minority of the military,” said Kayla M. Williams, CWV Director, explaining why it took so long for the VA to address women veteran issues. “When VA was really designed, it was just not set up to serve women because we were just such a minuscule fraction of the military, and as that’s changed, VA has changed to better meet the needs of women.”
One of the issues that concerns Williams most is making sure women know that they are veterans. “In those earlier eras, some women who didn’t go to war may have gotten the message when they came home that they weren’t eligible. We want to make sure women know that if they’ve served they should find out about their eligibility and see what we can do for them.”
There’s an odd and almost humorous line in “Profile of Women Veterans: 2015,” a VA report that was prepared by the National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics in December 2016. It says, “According to ACS data, women veterans are significantly different than men veterans.”
Past the obvious, it really is true. According to the report, more women than men have joined the military recently. More women veterans are minorities than their male counterparts. The women vets are younger; their average age is 50 while the typical age for male vets is 65. A higher percentage of women veterans served in the second Gulf war or during peacetime than male veterans. As with their civilian counterparts, women veterans have a lower median household income than male vets.
Williams’ is also focused on reaching women who, like herself, didn’t have the best experience when they first received care at the VA. “When I talk to women they say, ‘I went to VA and they called me mister or asked if my husband was with me. These are cultural change issues we are working on,” she stressed intensely. “I get that. It’s frustrating. It has happened to me too. I empathize, we’re changing that, I promise you.”
“But let me ask,” smiled Williams. “when you go to your civilian doctor, have they ever asked you about military sexual trauma? Have they asked you about burn pit exposure? No, because your civilian doctor doesn’t understand your military specific care, needs or potential exposures. So come to the VA where we have that level of competence that you’re not going to find in the civilian sector.”
The CWV page of VA’s website has resources for women veterans, including caregiver, economic opportunities, health and legal assistance. For more information on military sexual trauma you can go here.