Connecticut VA seeks to squash barriers as more female veterans seek services

While the total veteran population is predicted to decline, the percent of women veterans is increasing. They constitute the fastest growing veteran population in the United States, with about 10 percent of the 20 million veterans being women.

In 2016, the Department of Defense lifted all restrictions on the roles women can perform in the military, and more women continue to enlist in the same jobs as their male counterparts, including front-line combat posts. But exiting active duty, women veterans have unique needs.

Women leaving the military are more likely to be younger than men, caretakers of children, unmarried and unemployed after service. Since the Department of Veterans Affairs established gender-specific care for women in the 1990s, they have worked to expand services and access to address women veterans needs, including providing reproductive care, aging care related to women and mental health care specific to women’s struggles.

“We know from talking to women veterans there are a number of barriers specific to women,” West Haven VA Women Veterans Program Coordinator Lynette Adams said. “Women are often caretakers for children and spouses. Being the primary caretaker means women are busy — they’re in school, working, a mother. Balancing all that is challenging when accessing care.

At any VA, there is a women’s health center and gender-specific care for women where they offer primary care and mental health clinics designed to meet the needs of women vets as well as a military trauma expert and reproductive health experts. In a study by the VA that looked at barriers to VA health care among women, researchers found that 60 percent of women placed a greater importance on having a clinic for just women to receive care.

While not every woman makes use of the Women’s Center, many female veterans said it was important women have that option in case they did have traumatizing experiences with men in the military.

“The VA is still a male dominated place,” said VA Military Sexual Trauma Coordinator Jason DeViva. “For someone with a history of trauma, it can be hard to come to a place with that many men.” DeViva said the VA has women only MST groups and a dedicated clinic and campaign to make it more welcoming for those women who served.

“You definitely notice that you’re one of the few females there,” Kelleher said. “You can’t not notice that, but in the military, you’re already used to that. It doesn’t seem weird to me. It feels fairly normal. ... It didn’t unsettle me, but I’m someone who hasn’t experienced MST, so to me it was in no way uncomfortable to be in that environment. I can imagine if you had experienced that you would want to access the women’s center.”

The other obstacle for women who have experienced sexual trauma is they have a hard time with crowds and trusting people, he said. “It’s a factual observation that American culture is definitely not as supportive as it could be of women who disclose sexual trauma,” DeViva said.

Military sexual trauma disproportionately affects women vets, with one in four women saying it happened to them while in the military, Adams said. “Because we know that, we created trauma informed care and one that’s sensitive,” she said.

In 1994, the VA first mandated that all centers have a women veterans coordinator to advocate for women and their service needs and a more progressive law was passed that expanded care for MST, eliminating the time requirement on eligibility and limit on length of treatment. They also expanded the law to include care for physical conditions that resulted from sexual trauma and extended eligibility to men.

“That’s why it’s nice to have a women’s clinic, to have a space where she’s around other women who may have experienced something she has,” Adams said. “It’s really welcoming and we want to create safety and privacy.”

Even with the VA being male dominated, many women veterans said they never felt uncomfortable there and generally received good care. One issue, though, was outside the women’s clinic, the turnover rate of doctors and staff is so high, building a relationship is frustrating and difficult, former Navy gunner Brandy Parry said.

“As soon as you start to get to know someone and build that trust, they’re gone, so you never feel like you can really open up,” she said.

Retired Sgt. First Class Lisa Rodriguez, a JROTC at James Hillhouse High School, echoed her sentiment saying a large reason she prefers being seen in the women’s clinic is the consistency of staff, which helps make her feel comfortable to open up if she had an issue.

In addition to the population of women veterans growing, Adams said they’re seeing more women come to the VA for care, “and I think it’s indirect response to VA developing services and people like me going out to the community.” However, getting information to women veterans about their benefits is a big challenge for the VA and a barrier for vets, she said.

When anyone leaves the military after service, they go through a program that explains how to transition to civilian life and access benefits. It’s sometimes referred to as Transition Assistance Program or Transition Readiness Seminar. This is the Department of Defense’s effort to educate veterans about their benefits before they leave. But depending on where someone served or what branch they served in, they might not get the same thoroughness of information.

“I didn’t know I could go to the VA until I got out and it was a much harder process to do anything with the VA once I was out than if I started claiming when I was in,” said Beth Carlin, who served the US Army in Alaska.

Whereas Kathleen Lekko, a former Marine who was stationed in Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, started accessing her benefits while she was still on her base and got her benefits quickly and easily after she got out in 2017.

Lekko was saying accessing VA benefits is harder and can take longer for people who don’t know they can start claiming benefits near the end of their service while they’re still active military. She and Carlin both use their G.I. Bill to attend Quinnipiac University.

In the National Guard, when members leave they’re required to go through post mobilization Yellow Ribbon Program in which providers come talk to members and it’s “drilled into you what your benefits are,” Alyssa Kelleher, director of Veterans Affairs and Programs at the University of Connecticut and a Major in the Connecticut Army National Guard.

The disparity among veterans who know what their benefits are can become a barrier to accessing them. Parry said the information she got was condensed and didn’t tell her what she needed to know.

“You’re just getting out and shipping your stuff back home, you’re not thinking about your benefits,” she said. “You’re not thinking about all of this, and you don’t think the paperwork is going to be that confusing, so really it’s veterans helping veterans is how people get their benefits most of the time.”

Rodriguez also didn’t know what she was eligible for when she got out in 2006 after 21 years and hear by word of mouth from other vets what to do, otherwise, she wouldn’t know, she said. “I think the biggest downfall to accessing veterans is getting us information,” she said.

Veterans who don’t have information about services become at greater risk for becoming homeless because they’re not in touch with health care and job assistance, said Anne James, a veterans service officer with Connecticut Department of Veteran Affairs and former combat medic in the U.S. Army.

“Getting them enrolled in VA health care and mental health counseling can go a long way because they’re getting counseling for issues that may lead to problems on the job or in their apartment,” James said. “The challenge to homelessness is not being connected with services and getting that good underpinning.”

In addition to a lack of information, a challenge specific to female veterans accessing services such as health care is their positions as primary caregivers.

“When we’re talking about women veterans who need housing assistance, a particular challenge they face is having small children,” James said. According to a VA study, 42 percent of women who used VA health care reported that finding child care to attend medical appointments was “somewhat hard” or “very hard.” Women who aren’t married had even more difficulty.

“The fact that they’re primary caregivers is the biggest hurdle facing female vets that are faced with homelessness,” James said. Moreover, safe housing is scarce for female vets with children. One in Bridgeport, Female Soldiers: Forgotten Heroes, is Connecticut’s first and only community-based transitional home exclusively for homeless female veterans and their young children. The Connecticut Veterans Home and Hospital in Rocky Hill is another transitional housing option for female vets.

“The problem is, there are a lot of crisis intervention programs, but in long term, there are less supportive environments,” James said.

“Because women are the primary caregivers, women facing employment have to be concerned with child care issues, the expense, the timing of it,” James said. These things associated with child care are extra challenges for a female veteran who is looking to improve her situation. The veterans who are not providing direct child care and supervision of children have a lot more liberty, work, types of employment that will lead to stable housing, that the women veterans who need to take into consideration everything that child care entails.”

The VA doesn’t provide child care benefits directly — though programs are being piloted in some states — but other supportive services would hopefully alleviate some of the difficulties of raising a child, James said. What’s problematic is the very thing that they’re needing help for is a barrier to getting the help, she said.

James said she was fortunate to have the support of her family and her husband’s family when she got out in 1992 after she recently had a baby. They both used the G.I. Bill to go to school and received employment assistance. “If we had to worry about being homeless it would be difficult to access those benefits,” she said. “Being able to transition in a supportive atmosphere is a predictor of success. For people who don’t have that it’s nearly impossible.”

James said the communication and outreach by the VA is getting better and networks of veterans are getting stronger. “They’re doing a good job but every system needs improve.”

“I want to continue to find ways to get the word out to women to know they’re welcome to come to the VA and we have services,” Adams said. “In finding new and creative ways to do that, I’m looking to develop further ways to find them in the community.”

While the VA continues to expand and improve its services for women veterans, outside of a military environment, some women don’t feel they’re service gets recognized in the way men’s does.

“For females, we’re just often overlooked,” Parry said. People will often look at men and ask about their military experience, but don’t give the same consideration to women vets, she said. “They just assume the woman is not. ... It’s not the fact that they think we can’t serve, it just passes them by. It’s across all generations.”

A common experience for women who are active in the military and those who have left is being mistaken for being someone’s spouse and not the veteran. Lekko, Carlin, Parry, Rodriguez and Kelleher all said they had experienced that.

“I don’t know how we’ll ever get out of that,” Rodriguez said.

“It’s frustrating, but I know what I did and know what my experience has been,” Kelleher said. “I didn’t join for recognition and didn’t deploy for recognition. In the end, what matters is the soldiers I served with and peers respect me.” She said in her experience, women veterans otherwise get recognized.

“In general, the more evolved as a society we are, we are saying ‘men and women’ in uniform, and I don’t feel we’re not recognized,” James said. “It may not be the first thing people think about me, but I haven’t felt marginalized. But my experience might not be typical of every woman vet.”