Eli Reichman for NPR
Army veteran Hannah Jones says she spiraled into drugs, alcoholism and prostitution after being raped by a superior officer 30 years ago. She was homeless for years before getting help through the Department of Veterans Affairs. Jones says the range of mental and physical care the VA provides today keeps her off the streets.
The number of women serving in the military has mushroomed in recent decades to more than 200,000 active duty, not counting National Guard and reservists. This growing population faces many of the same problems as men — but also health and mental issues that are unique to female veterans.
In a wide hallway at a junior college in Kansas City, Mo., veterans — many of them homeless — drift from table to table. They're collecting everything from clothes and soap to legal advice.
The recent event, hosted by the Women's Bureau of the Labor Department, was designed specifically for female veterans.
Air National Guard Lt. Col. Connie Johnson-Cage smiles at the sight of so many of them.
"What do we typically see on TV? We see men fighting in the war. We see men veterans," Johnson-Cage says. "We never hear about the women in the back supporting the men. Now that we have women on the battlefield as well, we need to understand that we are all inclusive, and we are all veterans."
When Johnson-Cage's mother served in Vietnam, women made up about 3 percent of the military. Now women hold 15 percent of active-duty roles, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
But, the military, and the veterans system, was originally built by and for men. That legacy frustrates Kim Rushing, a 20-year veteran of the Navy. From her wheelchair, she scoffs at tables piled with olive drab long johns.
"All this stuff, is all men's stuff," she says. "I'm a woman and I served my country, and that's what I get, is men's stuff."
Veterans Affairs lags behind the surge of women joining the military. Though, Patricia Hayes, the VA's national director of women's health services, says it's come a long way in the past couple of decades.
"First of all, the woman might say that when she walked in she felt like she was walking a gauntlet," Hayes says. "There'd be a lot of men sitting in the waiting room. No images of women veterans. And the clerk may have said, 'Gee, are you here for your husband?'"
Eli Reichman for NPR
Even though she has served for a decade, Army Reserve Sgt. Miesha Wooten-Carr says she didn't know the VA provides comprehensive health care for women until last year.
Even though she has served for a decade, Army Reserve Sgt. Miesha Wooten-Carr says she didn't know the VA provides comprehensive health care for women until last year. Eli Reichman for NPR
As recently as three years ago, only about a third of VA hospitals and clinics offered women's care. Hayes says that soon all of them, more than 1,000 facilities, will provide gender-specific treatment.
"So we're having this cultural change throughout the VA, which is also based on meeting their medical and health needs," she says.
Hayes says the VA is committed to getting the word out to women like Army Reserve Sgt. Miesha Wooten-Carr.
In her living room in Kansas City, Mo., Wooten-Carr is going over spelling words with her lively 6-year-old daughter. Although, Wooten-Carr has served for a decade, it was only on her way home from Iraq last year, when she learned that the VA provides comprehensive health care for women.
"Wow. Head to toe, really? As a woman, you're going to take care of everything in this one clinic? Uh, yeah, I was so amazed! And so far, the services have been really good," she says.
1 In 5 Faces Sexual Assault
The VA is also addressing women's psychological trauma. According to the agency, more than 1 in 5 military women reports being raped or severely harassed in the service.
Army veteran Hannah Jones, 49, lives in a subsidized apartment in Kansas City. There she recounts being raped by a superior officer as a young recruit.
"If I tell anyone, he said, he'll know, and he will kill me," she says. "Every day, I saw him. Several times a day. I was so scared. I was 19."
Jones she says never reported the incident. She spiraled into drugs, alcoholism and prostitution. She was homeless for years before getting counseling, full medical benefits, and even housing, through the VA.
"I just, I love the VA — all this help they've given me, I can't help but love them," she says.
Jones says the range of mental and physical care the VA provides keeps her off the streets.
And that could be true of many more women after her: The VA expects the number of women seeking its services to double in the next decade.