I went to visit my doctor as I was feeling more tired than usual and some of the “normal aging” changes to a women’s body didn’t seem normal to me. My doctor ordered an ultrasound and then I had a hysteroscopy. This procedure is done when there is an indication of abnormal bleeding. The results came back—it was uterine cancer.
Cancer?! I thought—it just can’t be! I didn’t want to hear that diagnosis and I certainly did not want to face surgery. After consultation with a surgeon and additional appointments and tests, I decided to undergo a hysterectomy. Though the surgeon was positive that “we got it all,” it was recommended that I undergo three radiation treatments. I was informed about possible side effects; however, I’m fortunate that I haven’t had any serious problems with the treatments so far.
Though I did have family and friend support during this time, some people knew about my diagnosis, surgery, and treatment and some people didn’t. I am a private person and didn’t want people to panic or worry and I didn’t want people—though well meaning—to gossip about my situation.
Since my surgery, I’ve been thinking about the experiences of female vets everywhere. Brave women contributed their talents and time and suffered the same sacrifices as men; however, many have difficulty accessing health care services and community supports. We need to ensure that female vets have equal access to competent and qualified medical care, behavioral health services, and supportive community services, including housing. As the number of women serving in the military has increased, female veterans have become the fastest-growing demographic in America’s homeless community.
Though it’s probably not a well-known fact, women served in the United States military as early as the Revolutionary War. Women of all ages, ranks, and levels of authority have voluntarily entered every branch of service. Though they may qualify for a wide range of benefits offered by the Department of Veterans Affairs, barriers exist and include the following:
- Definition confusion—of what is considered a veteran, even within the military community. When women vets return from deployment, they are often in need of assistance; however, they may not self-identify as a vet and thereby are not accessing the needed services.
- Military Sexual Trauma (MST)—many women (and men) who have served in the military experience MST. MST includes any sexual activity where a person is involved against their will, such as insulting sexual comments, unwanted sexual advances, or even sexual assault. After experiencing MST, some female vets do not want to talk to a male physician or a male counselor; many feel depressed, or have other difficulties.
- Post-Traumatic Stress (PTSD)—per the National Center for PTSD, almost 20 percent of women vets serving in Iraq and Afghanistan have been diagnosed with PTSD. Additionally, an important study also found that about 27 percent suffered PTSD sometime during their postwar lives.
- Discrimination—yes, it’s evident. A man walks up to a service counter, says he’s a vet and likely doesn’t get questioned. For a woman, she is immediately required to show proof that she served in the military.
- Admitting the need for help—serving in battle can be a lot less intimidating than admitting the need for support. Women have struggles like men and returning to civilian life is challenging.
- Suicide—according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the female veterans suicide rate is 2.5 times higher than civilian women. Military service for women can be hard and it is made even harder when they lack the necessary supports when returning to civilian life. Self-isolation is common, and with the familiarity of firearms, these are frequently used to commit suicide.
- Homelessness—the number of homeless women veterans doubled from 1,380 in FY 2006 to 3,328 in FY 2010. Many women veterans are single mothers and, as of 2006, more than 40 percent have children. A study done by the Government Accountability Office showed that more than 60 percent of grant and per diem programs did not have sufficient resources to provide housing for children of veterans. Homeless women vets also face substantial barriers to employment.
As I continue my healing process, I am committed to helping other female vets. So, what helps?
- Social support—having women to talk to, particularly female vets, is important. I am still in contact with women that I served with.
- Have an advocate—weaving through processes can be frustrating and it’s important to have someone who can help walk with you through the steps.
- Update your driver’s license or ID card—veterans can have their veteran status displayed on their state-issued driver’ license or ID card. House Bill 2343 and Senate Bill 5775 was signed into law in 2014 and it became available in Washington State on August 30, 2017. It is free. Military veterans who choose to have the status on their card will need to show proof of U.S. military service to the Washington State Department of Licensing. They will need to bring their Certificate of Release or Discharge from Active Duty Form (DD Form 214) that shows “honorable” or “general under honorable conditions” status. If they do not have their DD Form 214, they can request their military service records online, by mail, or by fax. It verifies veteran’s status without carrying or producing a DD Form 214. Having this status on your card readily identifies veterans as qualifying for merchant offer discounts for themselves and their families.
- Learn and share information—explore the following VA websites from healthcare to homelessness services (and those who are at imminent risk of becoming homeless) to family support, and share it with others. VA staff are standing by to help you.
Veterans and their families may also call 1-877-4AID-VET (1-877-424-3838) to access VA services.
Our veterans have given so much through their service so that we can live in freedom. Join me in supporting them by sharing the resources noted here with other veterans and their families. And say thank you—especially to all the strong, courageous, and resilient female veterans in our lives.
Contributor Mary Pat O’Leary, RN, a planner with Aging and Disability Services, the Area Agency on Aging for Seattle-King County, interviewed a veteran colleague, who told her story (above) in honor of Veteran’s Day.