At the beginning of March, which happens to be Women’s History Month, SSG Jennifer Hunt wrote about her experience at the DC VA Medical Center regarding her OB/GYN care. That blog caught the attention of Dr. Patricia Hayes, the Chief Consultant for Women Veterans Health at VA. Dr. Hayes addressed what VA is doing to address SSG Hunt’s issues, as well as many others.
“Every time I see articles in the news or on the Internet about how something didn’t go well for a woman Veteran I think about all the women Veterans who need health care, who don’t have insurance or can’t find or afford care. I want them to try VA. And I want them to know that we are working as fast as we can to make positive changes and will continue to improve,” said Hayes. I am a female veteran, who served in Iraq in 2005-06, and I have been going to the DC VA Medical Center since I returned home. I too am committed to improving the system I use and getting other female veterans enrolled and comfortable with their care. Thus, I felt this would be an opportune time to discuss some of my recent experiences with VA’s outreach.
In November 2010, was Ladies’ Night at the Washington D.C. VA Medical Center. VA promised an evening of food, pampering and health information for female veterans. Because I was already enrolled in VA I received my invitation for the event a month prior and I attempted to rally my fellow female Veterans to attend with me, especially the many who did not receive an invitation or know anything else about it. Although I am fairly well-versed in VA system and have been an outspoken Veteran advocate for several years I felt it was important that we, female vets, support VA’s outreach efforts to support us.
Another fellow female Vet accompanied me, who has also been in VA’s system for years and recently moved here and needed to transfer to the DC facility–which was her goal for the evening. My only goal was to get my flu shot. Other than that and based on our previous experience with VA our expectations were fairly low.
However, our expectations were exceeded in every respect. Aside from good food and pampering, they provided genuine services; registration, exams, shots, and tests. The case transfer my friend was dreading was done within five minutes. Next up, flu shots. Then a run-down of the offerings in the Women’s Clinic and a preview of the Women’s Clinic expansion that was planned at that time to start construction in Spring 2011. The night was for us, to be recognized as soon as we walked in the door as veterans, not as a family member or staff. We both experienced a comfort level at the VA we had not experienced before.
There was still something missing. The majority of the Veterans were not our generation of female Vets. I fully respect the women who have had many difficult battles of their own and I thank them for paving the way for us. I was heartened that the previous generation of women at the event had strong bonds with one another, bonds I hope to continue with the women I’ve served with and the many female Veterans I now call friends. Yet the most recent generation of female Vets from Iraq and Afghanistan need to be represented too at the VA–those with the largest number of war-related injuries in history, such as, traumatic brain injury (TBI), combat-related PTSD, and amputations. This generation has unique needs that will only be addressed when we show up and request them.
I do not want to separate the women from the men too much, as we served together and for the most part our needs are the same, but the men dominate VA 365 days a year, it was nice to get one night. However, we need more than one night a year. I recommend a quarterly out-reach, not necessarily replete with food and entertainment, but more opportunities to get women registered and see that VA is attempting to address their needs. Once we have more women enrolled and receiving care at VA than these specific nights will no longer be necessary, we just need to get over the hurdle.
The Department of Veterans Affairs often gets its share of complaints, but very rarely praise. I want to thank the staff, doctors, nurses and volunteers who stayed late, without overtime, that night in an effort to encourage a unique community of veterans to begin their journey within VA and help shape its future.
With the success of Ladies’ Night in my mind another female vet and I attended annual the Stand Down event for homeless Veterans in January 2011. We walked up and down the halls talking to everyone we met about the possibility of starting a clothing closet for homeless and/or low-income female veterans in the updated Women’s Clinic or having ladies’ night more than once a year. What we learned about ladies’ night, by talking to a few people, is that they would love to host it more often, but cannot due to financial restrictions. We asked how much the event cost to put on, the answer, $10,000. To us that seemed fairly affordable in the realm of various events held on behalf of Veterans and something there could surely be outside support for. I know finances are difficult for donors everywhere, but this is such an easy and efficient way to directly help female Veterans in a tangible way. I also know my female Vet friends and I would be happy to promote and volunteer at future events if given the opportunity, so that we could get more women enrolled in the VA and invested in its future.
VA is trying to reach out and adapt to the growing female Veteran community, and needs feedback, both good and bad, in order to make these improvements. It is certainly not perfect yet, but as long as we stay engaged with VA, as SSG Hunt did, we will be there to make sure VA provides us excellent care for generations to come.
Carolyn Schapper served in the Army National Guard as an Interrogator and Russian linguist. She was deployed to Bayji, Iraq from 2005 to 2006 and took part in approximately 200 combat patrols. Since her return, she has volunteered her time speaking on behalf of Veterans’ issues, primarily focusing on women in combat. She has participated in multiple media appearances and interviews and testified before Congress on behalf of Veterans’ issues. Carolyn currently lives and works in Washington, D.C.