Veterans Groups and the VA have a Woman Problem

There is a really great opinion piece in the NYTimes this morning (link below) about the woman problems the VA has presently. The piece references a study report put out by the Disabled American Veterans titled, Women Veterans: The Long Journey Home (You can find the report here, and its worth reading through). This article got me thinking about something that happened to me recently – something I wasn’t sure I should share publically. Having read this opinion piece and the DAV report, I’ve decided that if we don’t share our experiences, people don’t believe in the magnitude of the challenges we as women veterans face.

I wrote a week or so ago about receiving a Quilt of Valor. The local county Veterans Services guy, rode up in the elevator with me and my significant other. Now, he and my SO had a moment where the other tried to give the great respect afforded to either a veteran or a military man (dude was in uniform); and I was clearly an after-thought in his mind. When we walked into the county commissioner chambers (where the small ceremony was being held) behind him, he looked a bit perplexed, and asked if we were related to the person receiving the quilt. I said to him, “Wow, that was a great way to figure out if we where here to receive the quilt or support the person receiving. I’m the veteran, I’m getting the quilt.” His reaction was stunning – “Oh, really?” Like there was no way this be a reality…and then, he asked, “…are you the nurse?”

I thought: No, asshole, I’m not the nurse, I’m the radar navigator and helicopter control specialist on a big fucking ship that fueled the battle group and would have been one of the first strategic targets in the Straits of Hormuz if Iran wanted to disable a battle group; where at the ripe old age of 21, I was often times one of the eldest people awake on a watch rotation with the responsibility of not wrecking or blowing up the ship.

but I said: No, I’m not the nurse.

and left it at that. (P.S. Turned out the nurse was a Vietnam Field Nurse – he was a guy). I was stunned that the guy who works for my county as the Veterans Services person assumed that between me and my significant other, he was the veteran; and that the only possible thing that made sense was that between me and the other person (a guy), I was probably the Army nurse and he was the Navy helicopter control specialist.

I had an opportunity to have my benefits filed through the Veterans Services department or the American Legion locally. I chose to have a member of the ABA work with me to get them done (a program they had to help deal with the backlogs). Though it has turned out to be an utter disaster, I didn’t want to have to deal with feeling like I had to prove my worth as a woman veteran to either of the groups above – one who makes assumptions when given a choice between a man and a woman, and one who just now gave membership to a woman veteran who has been in the woman’s auxiliary for 70 years without ever being considered for membership in the actual American Legion…especially when I’m dealing with the residual challenges of MST.

While I wholeheartedly agree with the summation the VA has a woman problem, it goes way beyond just the VA. In fairness to the people who actually work with patients at the VA, I don’t think the problem lies with them. I think the challenge lies with the politicians and the policy makers. I further think instead of wrapping up all the issues into a nice little package called “VA culture”, we should really hold the national veterans groups accountable, as well. Very few have women veterans on their executive boards, or in serious leadership positions. If they did, the men veterans might begin to recognize us when we right up in elevators with them, rather than thinking we are just a spouse or daughter of a male veteran.

There is an incredible opportunity to make the country a better place for veterans and it requires the wholehearted acceptance of women veterans and the understanding that maybe, just maybe we bring a unique perspective unlike anything any of these groups and public offices have ever seen before.

Below is a link to the opinion piece that inspired this article. The Disabled American Veterans’ recently released report outlines a list of recommended changes – we can only hope the report is read and considered by those that make the decisions in the VA and in the many veterans organizations in this country. I outlined the section below specifically because Kathryn Wirkus, the founder of Women Veterans of Colorado, has it completely right.

Read the Full article:
The V.A.’s Woman Problem

Disabled American Veterans, an advocacy and assistance group, recently issued a report called “Women Veterans: The Long Journey Home,” which includes a list of recommended changes. Among them are establishing a culture of respect for women, providing access to peer support networks, requiring every Veterans Affairs clinic to have a gynecologist on staff, removing barriers to mental health services, and adding gender-sensitive mental health programs aimed at women. “One of the most perplexing problems is a culture in V.A. that is not perceived by women as welcoming, and does not afford them or their needs equal consideration,” said Joy J. Ilem, the group’s deputy national legislative director, at this year’s Senate hearing.

Part of the solution is simply explaining that female veterans exist. “We are invisible,” says Kathryn Wirkus, the founder of Women Veterans of Colorado. “Women vets come home and we blend back in. We go back to being mothers, wives, schoolteachers, nurses, doctors, whatever. We don’t hang out at bars wearing funny hats that say ‘World War II vet.’ We aren’t easily identified by our haircuts or the clothing that we wear. If I walked into a room, nobody would think I was a veteran.”

This article was written by: Rachel Baker – Click to follow on Twitter; or you can follow her at The Crafty Veteran on Bloglovin. You can also follow her writing about women veteran interests at Shield Sisters