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Standing up for WOMEN VETERANS: DAV report recommmends improvments for growing demographic.

Army veteran Shaelynn Casserly spent four and a half years recovering after an improvised explosive device blast in Afghanistan, undergoing more than 60 surgeries. But from the moment she arrived at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, she found that the majority of people around her failed to make the connection between her injuries and her wartime experience.

"Instead of asking what happened or how I got hurt, people would ask if I fell--like I was a 10-year-old that fell off my bike," said Casserly. "From the beginning, no one would assume I was a combat veteran."

Casserly said she still finds herself experiencing those same feelings: overlooked and underestimated.

Experiences like hers are why DAV introduced its new report Women Veterans: The Journey Ahead. The publication spotlights how the expanding role of women in our armed forces necessitates policy and program changes in the VA and other federal agencies. It includes 45 key recommendations covering a broad range of issues affecting women veterans, including primary and gender-specific health care, mental health and readjustment services, and disability and employment benefits.

"With major reforms underway to modernize VA's health care and benefits processing systems, it is imperative that Congress and the VA focus on fully addressing the unique needs of the more than half-million women veterans using VA services," said National Legislative Director Joy Hem. "Although progress has been made in recent years, there remain long-standing, systemic barriers preventing many women from accessing the health care and benefits they have earned through their military service."

At a Capitol Hill launch event, a panel of women's health experts--including Dr. Elizabeth Yano, a research career scientist with the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System; Dr. Susan McCutcheon, VA national mental health director for family services, women's mental health and military sexual trauma (MST); Dr. Sally Haskell, deputy chief consultant for VA Women's Health Services; Dr. Sherrie Hans, of Sigma Health Consulting and co-author of The Journey Ahead; and Dr. Keita Franklin, VA national director of suicide prevention--discussed the report's findings as well as some areas where the VA has made significant improvements.

McCutcheon commented that there are more "touch points" in the VA for women veterans than within the private sector--or more opportunities to help ensure they are getting the full range of care, benefits and services they need and earned. She said this is especially true among clinically complex women veterans, or those who have a variety of health concerns.

"Private-sector providers know how to take care of women, but our women veterans are quite different and have special needs," said McCutcheon, noting the VA system advantages such as the universal screening program. "[Screening] allows us to proactively identify and refer for care for things like MST, depression, [post-traumatic stress disorder], alcohol use, suicide risk. You would probably never find these pieces anywhere in the community. When you get into the area of our women veterans who have experienced MST, specialized programming for them is pretty much nonexistent out in the community."

Hans noted that one of the most critical points that came from her research was the need to include gender-specific issues as major reforms are underway to transform the VA system.

"It's important that the needs and issues of women veterans remain at the forefront of policy, planning and implementation," she said.

Hans also said one critical recommendation that carries over from DAV's 2014 report Women Veterans: The Long Journey Home is the need to ensure metrics and measures are gathered, tracked and reported.

"Particularly as we move forward in these modernization efforts, you have to make sure that as you make change, you're watching what impact that has on women veterans and ensure you're not losing progress as you're making progress for everybody else," said Hans.

The new DAV report pointed out the unique set of circumstances and needs of women veterans compared to male counterparts. For example, female veterans tend to be younger, more racially and ethnically diverse, and to have child care responsibilities. They are more likely to be divorced or not married, but when married, they are five times more likely to be in a dual-service-member marriage. As a result, women veterans are less likely to have a family support system and often shoulder greater economic stress. Also, the suicide rate among women veterans is 2.5 times higher than their civilian counterparts.

Additionally, the report shares personal stories, like Casserly's, that demonstrate how cultural shortcomings have continued to plague the VA and other federal agencies as they learn to meet the unique needs of this demographic.

"Stories like Shaelynn's are the reason we're working so hard to correct this," said Hem. "As women veterans, we have gotten used to the surprised looks when we volunteer during a conversation that we served, too. But we shouldn't have to. And now is the time for the VA to consider how to change the culture to ensure that the role of women in the military and the sacrifices they made are understood, acknowledged and appreciated."

By Ashleigh Byrnes

Read the full report at
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Author:Byrnes, Ashleigh
Publication:DAV Magazine
Date:Nov 1, 2018
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