Veterans Affairs Struggling to Care for Female Soldiers

Cristen Conger

The VA expects the number of female vets to double over the next decade. (© 2009 Jupiterimages Corporation)

Last week, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that while female soldiers are officially banned from front-line combat, they're equally at-risk to physical and mental trauma in Iraq and Afghanistan as male soldiers. In a speech to the U.S. Institute of Peace, Mullen said: "The war can grab you anywhere [...]this will be the first generation of veterans where large segments of women returning will have been exposed to some form of combat." And not only are a greater proportion of female soldiers at risk of injury across today's combat landscape, their sheer numbers have also risen. Today, there are around 200,000 active duty female soldiers, comprising 15 percent of active-duty roles.

Although women soldiers are gradually receiving more recognition for their combat contributions, the military still has yet to adequately meet the needs of its growing female population who are fighting and returning home as veterans. As Tracy Clark-Flory of Broadsheet points out:

It isn't just that the policy against women on the front lines seems outdated (both in terms of sexual politics and the nature of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq). As the National Defense Authorization Act explained, "The committee is aware that service women ... have encountered difficulties in gaining proper recognition for their service, both within the services and when they leave active duty and seek assistance" -- in the way of healthcare and benefits -- "from the Department of Veterans Affairs." Which is to say: Female soldiers are cheated of acknowledgment for roles they are already filling.

According to an NPR story published after Adm. Mullen's speech, Veterans Affairs is making an earnest attempt to better serve women when they come home from war. Over the past few years, it has been working to integrate women's care into roughly 1,000 VA hospitals and clinics. These services include addressing women's medical needs as well as providing gender-specific therapy and support for sexual assault victims and veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. Most of the female veterans quoted in the NPR story gave the VA women's healthcare treatment high marks -- when it was available, that is.

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