People@Work: Female Vets Get Short Shrift in Their Search for Help

Last week's Veteran's Day holiday did much to focus the country's attention on those who have served in the nation's wars, including the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. One group, however, is often overlooked when its comes to the sacrifices they make in service to their country -- women.

About 250,000, or 15%, of the nation's active military members are women, and that percentage is expected to rise to 20% by 2020. When it comes to veterans, about 1.5 million of nearly 22 million troops who have served are women. Recent military conflicts, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan, however, have revealed that upon returning home, female veterans don't always get the support they need to reintegrate into society.

As with their male counterparts, many women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have returned with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury, ailments that have become nearly synonymous with tours of duty in both countries.

One Woman's Story

Though symptoms of the disorders have been widely reported, women in particular have a hard time getting treatment. That's because, as Richard Hall told The OakdaleLeader newspaper in California, "the [Veterans Administration] is not set up to assist women vets." Hall, who runs a local organization called Vets Helping Vets says of the female vets he's encountered, "It's been difficult to get them help."

One of those vets is Megan Morse, a marine who was deployed to Iraq in 2003, where she served as acting crew chief on a helicopter. As a woman, the Leader reported, Morse was prohibited from serving on the front lines of combat. But as many veterans have noted, in Afghanistan and Iraq, battle lines are more than a little blurred.

Morse left the Marine Corps in 2004 after suffering a back injury when the vehicle she was traveling in struck a mine. She returned home to Washington State but had trouble adjusting to civilian life, an all-too common experience among vets who have served in wars. Her husband, also a marine, divorced her. She experienced night terrors and got into fights at bars.

A diagnosis revealed she had PTSD, and Morse was sent for treatment at the local VA clinic for group counseling. But the group, which was all-male except for Morse, felt she was out of place there. The group's leader tried to explain. "He told me my presence made the others uncomfortable," Morse told the newspaper. "They couldn't show emotion with me there."

More eventually rejoined the group after she fought to get back in. It was an experience that proved beneficial for all involved. "They accepted me, and were like brothers," she said.

Inadequately Equipped

Still, Morse's experience is emblematic of the challenges female veterans experience in not only trying to readjust to civilian life but in getting the care they need. Despite knowledge of this issue, the U.S. government and veterans service agencies still aren't equipped to provide adequate and appropriate health care or housing to these women, Starlyn Lara recently wrote in an opinion column published in the San Francisco Chronicle.

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Lara, herself an army veteran, noted that many VA facilities lack a woman's clinic, and in San Francisco, there are no housing programs for female veterans with children. Provided such services, female veterans would be more likely to seek the help they need.

Women who serve in the nation's armed forces are just as much veterans as their male peers, Lara says. With Veteran's Day still fresh in many minds, it's important to remind female vets that finding the care they need is vital. But until government and VA officials act to provide women with services that meet their needs, for many, the battle now is finding them.
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