STEVE INSKEEP, host:
More than 230,000 American women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. When women come home from war, many face another battle: getting the care they need at VA hospitals, where there's a male-dominated culture - which the VA is trying to change. Erin Toner of member station WUWM reports from Milwaukee.
ERIN TONER: Gwen Sheppard, a retired Air Force Reserve commander, was among the first wave of women veterans to return from war in Iraq. In 2003, she led a unit that maintained roads and utilities at Baghdad International Airport. Sheppard says it was a chaotic scene, with fires and explosions all around her.
Commander GWEN SHEPPARD (Air Force Reserve, Retired): We had smoke all the time. There was burning all around us 24/7. We'd take pictures, and it looked like raindrops in the pictures. That's how thick it was.
TONER: The 47-year-old Sheppard wondered whether inhaling all that smoke made her sick. After returning to suburban Milwaukee, she began having a range of medical problems, including trouble remembering things. Sheppard sought help at the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center in Milwaukee, but says back in 2004, the hospital did not seem prepared to handle Iraq veterans, especially women.
Cmdr. SHEPPARD: A lot of times, I would get blown off with things - oh, well, that's just a female thing. And I'm like, no, there's something going on. I know my body. You guys need to dig a little deeper.
TONER: So she was sick and not getting any answers - or the respect she felt she deserved.
Cmdr. SHEPPARD: A lot of areas in the VA will still call you mister. They don't even look at the first name, and they'll say, Mr. Sheppard. And of course, that's a trigger for me.
TONER: Jill Feldman, the Women Veterans Program manager at the Milwaukee VA, says Sheppard's experience is not unusual, and the hospital's working to change the culture. There are posters plastered along the walls to remind everyone that women, well, are not men.
Ms. JILL FELDMAN (Manager, Women Veterans Program, Milwaukee VA): The poster has two women veterans and it says: We are veterans, too. Ms. or Mrs. will do.
TONER: Feldman says the VA is also working to make sure female patients who want to see one doctor who specializes in comprehensive women's care can.
Ms. FELDMAN: For a long time, women had split-off kinds of care. They would see a primary care provider who saw mostly men, and then for their gender-specific needs, they would be sent to one provider who just did paps, pelvic exams, that kind of thing.
Down here, in this hallway, is where the women are seen.
TONER: Feldman takes me to an area of the hospital called the women's clinic. Yet there are just a few examine rooms set aside strictly for female patients. And in the waiting area, mostly men are sitting.
It's estimated that the number of female veterans who use the VA system will double in the next five years. Dr. Kayt Havens, the women's medical director in Milwaukee, says she teleconferences with her counterparts around the nation once a month to brainstorm ideas for improving health care.
Dr. KAYT HAVENS (Women's medical director, Milwaukee VA): We have common threads now, so that you could start a program here in Milwaukee, and if it works well, then it can get picked up by other VA systems.
TONER: There's a bill pending in Congress that would authorize a study of women who've served in Iraq and Afghanistan to find out how the wars have impacted their physical, mental and reproductive health. The bill also would require a review of the barriers women face in accessing VA health care.
For NPR News, I'm Erin Toner in Milwaukee.
INSKEEP: Learn more about the growing numbers of female veterans at npr.org.