Women can now serve in all military jobs, combat roles included, which means that more and more veterans are going to be female. Which means that the Department of Veterans Affairs and its medical system have an awful lot of work to do to prepare.
By 2043, nearly 17 percent of veterans are likely to be female, and in the first decade of this century, the number of female veterans seeking health care in the VA system increased by 83 percent. Yet, one-third of VA medical facilities still don't have a gynecologist on staff and in 2011, only two percent of them provided mammography services. They do not provide obstetrics—prenatal care or deliveries. Women veterans also don't have the right to access abortion with their insurance. And in the last two years, 20 percent of female veterans reported that they delayed or went without health care.
The lack of health services for female veterans is partly due to low patient numbers, according to Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain who formerly worked on the VA secretary's advisory committee for women veterans. The veteran population is still about 90 percent male. Some VA facilities don't have enough female patients to get federal certification for mammography services, so women are referred elsewhere. In other cases, facilities only have part-time gynecologists who visit a few times a week, or they refer women to gynecology services through community care providers.
And many VA hospitals were built several decades ago with male patients in mind, so there aren't enough private rooms for women. The situation is somewhat better for military women before they become veterans: While they're still active duty, they get health insurance through the Defense Department, whose medical system offers more women-specific treatment because it also cares for military spouses and family members. But the VA's medical system doesn't treat family members. Sometimes, Manning adds, "a woman veteran goes to the hospital and is asked whose wife she is or what she's doing there."
Significantly, female veterans are five times more likely to commit suicide than their male peers and are more likely to be diagnosed with mental health problems. There's De'Cha LaVeau, a 38-year-old Navy veteran, for example who has PTSD from military sexual trauma. She spoke with Mother Jones for this story.
"It's rough," she says, crying over the phone. "You call to get an appointment when you're having a bad day—you're thinking you're going to get in within a couple of weeks. And it took call after call after call to get a letter saying you have an appointment six months later."
Shockingly, the Republican House has addressed that issue, passing legislation this week to direct the department to review its mental health programs for women vets. It's a start.