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Veterans Affairs Scrambles To Serve Female Veterans

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Veterans Affairs Scrambles To Serve Female Veterans

The Impact of War

Veterans Affairs Scrambles To Serve Female Veterans

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This WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

The number of women serving in the military has risen sharply in recent decades. They face many of the same problems as military men, but also health and mental issues that are unique to women.

With Veterans Day approaching this week, NPR is taking a look at the needs of women vets.

Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports on the Veterans Administration's efforts to address them.

(Soundbite of conversations)

FRANK MORRIS: In this wide hallway at a junior college in Kansas City, veterans, many of them homeless, drift from table to table. They're here collecting everything from clothes and soap to legal advice. This event, hosted by the Woman's Bureau of the U.S. Labor Department, was designed specifically for women veterans.

Connie Johnson-Cage, a lieutenant colonel with the Air National Guard, smiles at the sight of so many of them here.

Lieutenant Colonel CONNIE JOHNSON-CAGE (Air National Guard): Because what do we typically see on TV? We see men fighting in the war. We see men veterans. We never hear about the women who are 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.

MORRIS: When Cage's mother served in Vietnam, women made up about three percent of the military. Now, according to the VA, they hold 15 percent of active duty roles. But the military and the veteran's system was originally built by and for men.

And 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.

Ms. KIM RUSHING (Navy Veteran): All this stuff is all men's stuff. I'm a woman and I served my country, and that's what I get is men's stuff.

MORRIS: The Veterans Administration 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 ways in the past couple of decades.

Dr. PATRICIA HAYES (National Director, Women's Health Services): First of all, the woman might say that she walked in, and she felt like she was walking a gauntlet. There'd be a lot of men sitting in the waiting room. No images of women veterans. And maybe the clerk would have said: Gee, are you here for your husband?

MORRIS: 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 a thousand facilities, will provide gender specific treatment.

Dr. HAYES: So we're having this cultural change throughout the VA, which is also based on meeting their medical and health needs.

MORRIS: Hayes says the VA is committed to getting word out to women like Army Reserve Sergeant Miesha Wooten-Carr.

Unidentified Child: J-U-N-E.

Sergeant MIESHA WOOTEN-CARR (Army Reserve): Okay. March.

MORRIS: In her living room in Kansas City...

Unidentified Child: M-A-R-C-H.

MORRIS: ...Carr is going over spelling words with her lively six year old daughter. Although she served for a decade, it was only on her way home from Iraq last year when she learned that the VA provides comprehensive healthcare for women.

Sgt. WOOTEN-CARR: Wow. Head to toe, really? As a woman, you're going to take everything in this one clinic? Yeah, I was so amazed. And so far, the services have been really good.

MORRIS: The VA is also addressing women's psychological trauma. According to the agency, more than one in five military women report being raped or severely harassed in the service.

(Soundbite of chimes)

MORRIS: Forty-nine year old Army vet Hannah Jones lives in a subsidized apartment in Kansas City. There, she recounts being raped by a superior officer as a young recruit.

Ms. HANNAH JONES (Army Veteran): If I tell anyone, he said, he'll know and he will kill me. Every day I saw him, several times a day. I was so scared. I was 19.

MORRIS: Jones says she 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.

Ms. JONES: I just love the VA Hospital. I do. I love the VA Hospital. All this help they've given me, I can't help but love them.

MORRIS: Jones says the range of mental and physical care keeps her off the street to this day. The VA expects the number of women seeking its services to double in the next decade.

For NPR news, I'm Frank Morris, in Kansas City.

NEARY: You can hear more about the issues facing women veterans on MORNING EDITION and ALL THINGS CONSIDERED this Veterans Day, Thursday, November 11th.

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