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A Veterans Affairs hospital in Arizona is expanding treatment to a previously underserved group of patients. The Tucson VA opened this month a clinic for transgender veterans. From member station KJZZ, Jimmy Jenkins reports.
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JIMMY JENKINS, BYLINE: Every morning at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Tucson, Ariz., staff and patients stop in their tracks, stand at attention and salute while the national anthem plays on loudspeakers overhead. Thousands of veterans come to the palm-tree-adorned Spanish-style campus seeking medical care each year. And now, the Tucson VA is one of the first hospitals in country to open a clinic devoted specifically to the needs of veterans like Sue McConnell.
SUE MCCONNELL: In 1994, I was diagnosed with PTSD. I was also dealing with the fact that I was a woman.
JENKINS: McConnell came out as transgender while serving the Navy in Vietnam, which meant leaving the military. Coming out took a personal toll as well, and her family has shunned her. But she says she simply had no choice.
MCCONNELL: I had to be who I am no matter the cost.
JENKINS: McConnell is one of more than 130 transgender veterans receiving treatment at the Tucson VA. Due to the high demand for these services, the women's clinic at the hospital is now devoting one day a month to the expansion of care for transgender veterans.
SONIA PEREZ-PADILLA: We have been flooded with phone calls since we've announced that the clinic will be opening - patients from all over wanting to know about it, to be able to take advantage of this opportunity.
JENKINS: Dr. Sonia Perez-Padilla is the director of the women's clinic at the Tucson VA. She's now also in charge of the transgender clinic, which includes a psychologist, social workers, clinical pharmacists and a therapist. In 2011, the VA Central Office issued a directive that all Veterans Affairs hospitals begin to provide care for transgender veterans. That's when Perez-Padilla's women's clinic began offering treatment for gender dysphoria, which replaced the previous diagnosis of gender identity disorder.
PEREZ-PADILLA: There's nothing wrong with these veterans, OK? They're unhappy because there's a mismatch between who they are and their biological organs. But it's not a disorder at all.
JENKINS: Aside from hormone treatment and psychiatric care, the clinic offers a peer support group, something veteran Sue McConnell found helpful as she attempted to embrace her true identity.
MCCONNELL: The transgender support group gives us an outlet where we can talk about things that we need to talk about, such as clothing, makeup, you know, how to dress, how to act.
JENKINS: But she says the best therapy is knowing she's not alone.
MCCONNELL: Here you are. And it's kind of like, oh, wow, there is somebody else like me.
EVAN YOUNG: I get calls daily from veterans that have experienced discrimination.
JENKINS: Evan Young is a retired Army major and president of the Transgender American Veterans Association. He says with so much recent attention paid to gays and lesbians in the military, he feels transgender servicemembers and veterans have been overlooked.
YOUNG: When don't ask, don't tell was repealed, we kind of got left back in the closet.
JENKINS: While gays and lesbians can now serve openly in the military, transgender people still can't. However, secretary of defense Ash Carter created a working group in 2015 that's charged with ending the ban. And the VA issued another directive in 2013 clarifying and extending the range of procedures their hospitals are to provide to trans vets. But Young says despite the progress, transgender veterans are still turned away at some VA hospitals.
YOUNG: For a lot of people, it's, you know, your last hope, and when you get that crushed, there's nowhere else to go.
JENKINS: While many veterans hospitals around the country offer a range of services for trans vets, the Tucson VA as well as the VA in Cleveland, Ohio, are among the few that offer a standalone clinic. While the VA offers pre- and post-operative treatment for trans vets, they do not cover the cost of or perform gender reassignment surgery. Dr. Perez-Padilla says covering the surgery would be the next logical step as the VA moves to providing equal care to everyone.
PEREZ-PADILLA: If a veteran has an onset of cancer or a heart condition and needs a transplant - anything that might arise after they've served, we take care of it. We serve all who have served.
JENKINS: Because, Perez-Padilla says, regardless of gender identity, all of her patients identify as veterans. For NPR News, I'm Jimmy Jenkins in Phoenix.
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