Women veterans are a faster-growing, younger, and more diverse group than their male counterparts. Nearly 7 percent of all U.S. veterans are women, a number that's expected to jump to 11 percent by 2020. They account for 14 percent of active duty U.S. military, and 20 percent of new enlistees. In 2000, about 160,000 women sought care at VA clinics and hospitals; in 2012, that number had more than doubled to 390,000.
And women vets face an array of health risks, ranging from sexual harassment and sexual assault, reported by nearly one in three female vets, to direct combat exposure. "At a time when the number of women veterans is growing to unprecedented levels, our country is simply not doing enough to meet their health, social and economic needs," Joy Ilem, the deputy national legislative director of Disabled American Veterans (DAV), an advocacy group, told the Associated Press.
Women Veterans Face Long Waits for HealthcareThe Veterans Administration (VA) launched an effort to improve care for women vets in 2008, and the agency has spent more than $1.3 billion to fund research on women's health, to train doctors, and even build women's restrooms in its facilities. But the system is still trying to adjust.
The VA itself found only one in six female vets understood the health benefits they were eligible for through their military service. And a report from DAV released in September 2014 found that one-third of VA medical centers did not have a gynecologist on staff. A separate investigation, by the Associated Press, found that women were more likely than men to be placed on the VA's Electronic Wait List than men — a list for patients who can't be scheduled for an appointment within 90 days.
“I am appalled at the waiting times for women vets and all veterans,” says Angie Batica, 40, a disabled veteran who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. “We have a Women's Clinic dedicated to women vets, but it takes not weeks, but months to get an appointment! Unless it's an annual or non-emergency appointment, don't expect to get in soon. If I have an immediate need to be seen, I have to go to the ER or same-day clinic...I've found the ER doctors refer me back to the Women's Clinic and the cycle continues.”
Batica is on 100 percent disability due to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), military sexual trauma, and depression. She joined the Army Reserves in 1992, at 17, and served her first tour of duty in Fort Bragg, North Carolina from 1994-1996. Her next post was Camp Stanton, South Korea, where she was the third woman on the base. “I was horribly raped and it was covered up,” Batica says. “I was sexually harassed by coworkers.” She received an honorable discharge in 1998.
“My diagnosed health issues have been dealing with addiction and mental illness resulting from trauma in the Army,” Batica says. “It doesn't matter what I need to be seen for, mental health, vision, dental, female issues, podiatry, prosthetics, allergy, etc., the waiting times are ridiculous and the care isn't always up to par.”
More Disability Among Women VeteransAccording to a VA report released in February 2014, the top five medical issues for women vets are:
- Musculoskeletal (56 percent)
- Endocrine/metabolic/nutritional (51 percent)
- Mental health/substance use disorders (45 percent)
- Cardiovascular disease (37 percent)
- Reproductive health (31 percent)
Nearly one-third of women veterans reported being exposed to sexual trauma in the military including sexual harassment and assault. These women are at increased risk of major depression, anxiety, PTSD, suicidal thoughts and attempts, and poor quality of life, according to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.
Women veterans are more likely than ever to be exposed to a new threat to their health: combat. While they are still officially barred from many combat roles, the nearly 280,000 women who served in the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were often directly exposed to combat, returning home with combat-related health problems including PTSD and traumatic brain injury.