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The largest group of women veterans today served in the early campaigns of Iraq and Afghanistan. But the battle for many female vets continues on the home front when they seek care at Veterans Administration hospitals. Texas Public Radio's Terry Gildea brings us the story of a decorated female veteran and her struggle to find care after being diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
TERRY GILDEA: Marti Ribeiro agreed to meet me at my station's studios on a Saturday morning. The Air Force veteran wanted to talk about her PTSD but wouldn't allow me to talk with her family or young daughter about how she's coping. A slender, 30-year-old woman with hazel eyes and matted blond hair, she looked tired and nervous as she put out her cigarette before the interview began.
Would you like me to call you Marti on the air instead of Martha?
Ms. MARTI RIBEIRO (Air Force Veteran): Yes, please.
Ms. RIBEIRO: Only my grandmother calls me Martha.
GILDEA: Ribeiro spent eight years in the Air Force and achieved the rank of staff sergeant. In 2006, she was embedded with the Army's 10th Mountain Division in Afghanistan as a military journalist, covering the unit's humanitarian mission. On many occasions she had to drop her camera and pick up her rifle.
Ms. RIBEIRO: We were hit with mortars and RPGs and it ranges from IEDs on, you know, our convoys to a lot of small-arms fire.
GILDEA: Ribeiro was awarded the Army's Combat Action Badge, but the medal did little to slow the mounting chaos in her life. She was getting ready to separate from the Air Force and return to her husband and young daughter in the States when her husband filed for divorce. Ribeiro came home shaken by the tension and grief of combat to take on her new role as a single parent. She was overwhelmed by stress and anxiety.
Ms. RIBEIRO: It's like having a burning sensation in the pit of your stomach that doesn't ever go away. You become very paranoid in that sometimes you feel like people are out to get you.
GILDEA: Ribeiro was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder by military doctors at a hospital in San Antonio, where she was stationed. She says doctors recommended she apply for benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
After being discharged, Ribeiro moved to Oklahoma City with her daughter, and her symptoms got worse. According to her VA medical records, her PTSD claim was approved. But when she tried making an appointment at the local clinic, another battle began.
Ms. RIBEIRO: And they kept saying, oh, well you've got to go get registered at the clinic, and then you've got to go to your primary care physician, and then we will set you up with a mental health appointment. And one day, I just walked into the mental health facility and stood there and said, I'm not leaving until you help me.
GILDEA: She was finally evaluated by a physician and a psychotherapist, but Ribeiro claims she was overmedicated with drugs like Xanax, that covered up her symptoms but didn't deal with the roots of her anxiety. Eventually, she found a psychiatrist who helped her.
Mr. RIBEIRO: He got me on the right medication, the exact medication I needed to be on, but there's two psychiatrists - that's it - for the entire Oklahoma City VA Medical Center, and I'm only allowed to see him once every six months.
GILDEA: Officials at the Oklahoma City VA say there are 14 psychiatrists on staff but only one solely dedicated to PTSD issues from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ribeiro says her counselors denied her access to a group therapy program designed for combat veterans of those conflicts.
Mr. RIBEIRO: The OEF-OIF section has, like, a buffet of everything you need to deal with PTSD. They've got sleep therapy, they've got a nightmare group therapy program but they are sticking to their guns and they won't refer me to that section.
Ms. RIBEIRO: You're asking the wrong person. But it seems to be the only thing that's excluding me is the fact that I'm female.
GILDEA: Studies show women veterans often have a hard time proving they saw combat to get a PTSD claim approved. But Ribeiro did earn a combat medal.
Dr. Dan Jones is the director of the Post-Traumatic Stress Recovery Program at the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center. Jones didn't comment directly on Ribeiro's case, but he says there are national policies that should prevent a female vet with an approved claim from being denied access to a support group.
Dr. DAN JONES (Director, Post-Traumatic Stress Recovery Program, Oklahoma City VA Medical Center): I can't think of a reason that she would be denied for entrance into most of these programs if she had those qualifications.
GILDEA: Marti Ribeiro says she's given up on the VA to provide free counseling. She's found a good therapist for herself and her daughter through private insurance.
Ms. RIBEIRO: It's 30 bucks a week - that's my co-pay for seeing a specialist, basically. So it can get expensive, especially between that and my daughter's counseling.
GILDEA: Today, Ribeiro has a full-time job, and she's found support from a committed relationship. She wants to move on from the memories of war, but she knows her life will never be the same.
Ms. RIBEIRO: You don't want to forget. You feel guilty for wanting to forget. I served my country honorably for eight years. I should be proud. I've seen things and done things that a million other people haven't, and I lived through it and I'm fine, and I'm on the other side, and I'm going to get through it.
GILDEA: According to recent VA statistics, PTSD and depression are the top disability claims among a female vet population that continues to grow as more women return home from war.
For NPR News, I'm Terry Gildea.