VA is prodded to give more aid to female vets

Kristine Wise remembers driving from San Diego to Victorville to visit her brother and seeing haunting messages on the freeway signs. Instead of the speed limit or the miles to the next town, she envisioned: Beware of Snipers. Watch Out for Bombs. 40 miles to Baghdad. Death Ahead.

“It was horrible” said Wise, who served in Iraq with the Army in 2003 and 2004.

The disturbing images are part of the anxiety and panic attacks she has suffered since serving as a supply clerk just as the insurgency was becoming proficient at killing Americans with roadside bombs and suicide attacks.

In Iraq, her depression ran so deep that she wrote a suicide poem: “The pressure is too great / I’m going to crack and fall apart / . . . My casket is now fully covered, it looks nice.” Sent back to Germany, Wise received psychiatric and medical treatment before she was honorably discharged in 2004, two years early.


Now 40 and a student at Cal State San Marcos, she is part of a growing phenomenon: large numbers of women who have been traumatized by military service.

The number of female veterans being treated by the Department of Veterans Affairs has doubled in recent years and is expected to double again within a decade. The swift demographic change has prompted some veterans’ advocates to assert that the VA has not responded adequately to women’s mental and physical healthcare needs.

Moves are underway in both houses of Congress to prod the VA, a massive organization that has historically been dedicated to the treatment of men, to improve service to female veterans. VA officials say they have gotten the message.

More than 240,000 female soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen -- about 11% of the overall force -- have been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.


Through Oct. 1, 11,713 female veterans had been diagnosed by the VA with post-traumatic stress disorder, a number that does not include thousands who are still on active duty and received a similar diagnosis from military health specialists.

Through mid-2009, 5,100 female veterans were receiving disability benefits for stress, compared to 57,732 men.

There have yet to be comprehensive studies about how women are affected differently than men in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a leading VA critic, has called for a study to determine whether a bias toward men makes it more difficult for women to receive disability payments.


Some preliminary statistics and anecdotal evidence collected by clinicians suggests that women are experiencing physical and emotional problems at a higher rate than their male counterparts, although firm numbers are not available.

By one study, about 40% of female veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan are seeking care at the VA, compared to 22% of male veterans.

In San Diego County, which has a large military population, female veterans are more likely to have a mix of physical and emotional problems than men. The divorce rate among enlisted women is three times that of enlisted men.

Rep. Bob Filner (D-Chula Vista), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said the VA’s response to women’s needs has been “too slow and not comprehensive enough. It’s not just a money thing, it’s a major culture shift.”


A bill passed in November by the Senate would authorize a comprehensive study of the VA’s treatment of women by outside researchers. A companion bill is pending in the House. Filner wants a Women’s Veterans Bill of Rights.

Patricia Hayes, chief consultant for the Women’s Veterans Health Strategic Healthcare Group at the VA, said four-day seminars are being held nationwide with the goal of training 1,200 employees to become specialists in women’s health issues.

At a hearing held last spring by Filner’s committee, Anuradha K. Bhagwati, executive director of Service Women’s Action Network, told lawmakers that many women continue to receive inferior care at VA hospitals.

“Attending a VA medical appointment as a woman veteran can be a traumatic experience,” she said. “VA employees sometimes fail to acknowledge the prevalence of servicewomen throughout the armed forces, forcing women to ‘prove’ their veteran status.”


Filner said the VA needs to make sure its employees, starting with its doctors, realize that women are serving in combat.

“We had a woman who lost her arm in Fallouja, but the doctor couldn’t recognize that women are in combat and figured it must have been cancer,” he said. “If a woman feels disrespected like that, she’s not going to seek the care she deserves.”

Hayes said that changing the culture of a traditionally male-oriented VA -- a vast system of 170 hospitals, 400 outpatient clinics and responsibility for 25 million veterans and family members-- is not easy but that she and other officials are dedicated to the task.

“A lot of VA employees are also veterans, and maybe they served when there weren’t many women,” said Hayes, a psychologist. “There is a need to get them to see that the role of women has expanded.”


Hayes and other professionals suggest that women are grappling with problems unique to their gender: a lack of respect from their male counterparts and the public at large for their military service, rampant sexual harassment and assaults and, for mothers, lingering guilt over having to leave their children behind.

Women who must leave their children when they deploy suffer guilt pangs even after they have returned, said Carie Rodgers, a VA psychologist in San Diego.

Wise’s care might be considered a model for other female veterans: therapy at a veterans center, a subsidized living arrangement, daily contact with other veterans and a supportive atmosphere at college.

She remains proud of her service, despite her difficulties.


Wise sees a therapist at the San Diego Veterans Center, has her college tuition and other expenses paid by the VA’s vocational rehabilitation program and receives a monthly living stipend and $200 in food stamps.

Wise, rated as 10% disabled because of depression, occasionally has streaks of what psychologists call “hyper-vigilance” when something reminds her of Iraq. Her sleep problems are becoming less frequent.

At Cal State San Marcos, she helped organize an art show for veterans in November. She is within three semesters of graduating with a degree in human development and hopes to become a counselor for veterans, particularly those who have deployed to war zones.

“I know what they’re going through,” she said.