Post 9/11 women veterans to VA: Here is how to improve our care

Kaylah Jackson
August 29, 2018 - 1:56 pm

(U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Ashley Perdue)

Women make up almost 11.6 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and a new study shows that the VA still has a lot of work to do when it comes to caring for them.

A group of researchers at the University of Maryland, College Park asked 29 women veterans of recent conflicts for recommendations on how to improve the VA to better serve them. Study participants included both female officers and enlisted from various ethnicities and represented every branch of the Armed Forces, except the Coast Guard.

Improvement suggestions varied but fell under three umbrellas: Therapeutic relationship, Clinical care environment, and Heath care system. While the topic of supporting women veterans with more efficient care isn’t entirely new, it’s not often they are included in the conversation with health care professionals.

One of the more recent findings included screening women for their exposure to combat.

After September 11, OEF and OIF started an increase in public visibility for women supporting their male counterparts on the ground. In fact, women veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts represent the largest set of women who were “extensively and actively in combat operations” and women of that era want the VA to recognize it. 

Many times clinicians aren't even asking combat-experience related questions, often defaulting to the myth that women don't see combat. A participant said, "Make sure that you recognize that (combat) part of their service. A lot of time it goes unrecognized… It’s important to find out what [women] were doing and then address that no differently than you would address it for a male.”

Another woman in the study mentioned her own experience as a drone operator and how that shaped her stress. While many don’t consider operating what’s essentially a robot as "combat experience", the women behind the screens tend to disagree. In 2017, NPR reported on how drone operations impacted a female Air Force intelligence analyst.

"You don't need a fancy study to tell you that watching someone beheaded, or skinned alive, or tortured to death, is gonna have an impact on you as a human being," says, Lt. Col. Cameron Thurman, commander of the unit, mentioned in the article.

Efficient screening and asking the right questions both fall into another larger theme in the study—Clinical Care Environment. Body language on the part of a health care professional is important to patients and for women veterans, they notice when their doctor either isn't paying attention or valuing the conversation, which leads to one major suggestion: active listening. Though it seems obvious, engaging as a part of the environment means paying more attention to how women experience grief and what words they use to describe their experiences.

Whereas words like “down,” or “alone,” to describe mental health could be more common for civilian women, women veterans might express anger as a coping mechanism. Many participants mentioned that family members and health professionals met their feelings of anger with discomfort rather than recognizing a woman veteran saying “I feel neglected” or “I feel angry” as representative of the masculine culture that the military promotes.

There have been numerous accounts of women veterans being mistaken for spouses when they visit the VA, but facing issues with gender-sensitive environments doesn’t stop there. One participant explained how she wears loose-fitting clothes to combat being romantically approached by staff or other patients.

“Every single time I go to the VA hospital, I get hit on, and my anxiety is already at 100! Look, I’m here because I have an appointment, whether it’s mental health or my gynecologist.I'm not here to make a love connection. Leave your comments to yourself.”

Creating a more inclusive environment at VA was just one recommendation within the larger theme. Other recommendations included:

  • Increase peer support groups.
  • Increase the number of women veterans in the mental workforce.
  • Expand access to “talk therapies” and carefully evaluate the use of medications.
  • Address women work-life challenges.

According to VA, the number of women veterans using VA health care increased 46.4 percent from 2005 to 2015, with women veterans becoming the highest growing veteran population.

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