Challenges Facing Female Veterans

By Christine Cupaiuolo — November 11, 2008

On this Veterans Day, we take a look at the services available to female veterans, who face high rates of sexual assault, and the increased dangers of domestic violence among military personnel:

– “Shedding light on the challenges facing women in the military, a new study shows that more than one in seven female Iraq and Afghanistan veterans seeking VA medical care reported experiencing sexual trauma during their service,” HealthDay News reported in October.

The study was conducted by the VA Palo Alto Health Care System’s National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in California.

A previous study from 2007 found that 22 percent of female veterans and 1 percent of male veterans — serving in all areas, not just Afghanistan and Iraq — reported sexual trauma in health-care surveys conducted by the Veterans Administration in 2003.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has set up this page to explain the counseling and treatment services it offered to personnel.

Earlier this year, Rep. Jane Harman (D-California), described the rate of sexual assault in the military as “an epidemic.”

“Women serving in the U.S. military today are more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire in Iraq,” said Harman.

– Sharkfu remembers Pvt. LaVena Johnson, who was murdered in Iraq in 2005, just eight weeks after her deployment and days before her 20th birthday. The Army insists her death was a suicide. Read more at Our Weekly.

– In a recent editorial, the Fayetteville Observer called on the Army to redouble its efforts to provide programs and services to prevent domestic violence. Fort Bragg was the recent site of protest against domestic violence — four female service members were slain in North Carolina this year, all allegedly murdered by their husbands or boyfriends, also service personnel.

Writing at AlterNet, author Penny Coleman notes that when “Barack Obama decides who he will appoint to head the Department of Veterans Affairs in his administration, he should consider appointing someone who also understands how important it is that women’s bodies, souls, dignity and health be taken seriously.”

Tammy Duckworth, who is reported to be at the top of his list, certainly has had personal experience with a health care delivery system she has called “a little bit arcane.”

Duckworth is now director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, but in 2004, she was a Blackhawk helicopter pilot in Iraq and lost both of her legs in a crash. She describes the care she received at Walter Reed Army Medical Center as “excellent,” but adds, “the comfort package I received contained men’s Jockey shorts, and the local VA hospital carried Viagra but not my birth control.”

There are currently about 1.7 million female veterans in the United States, and the Department of Defense estimates that there are about 200,000 women, 15 percent of the military, on active duty. Thirty-nine percent of those women return from Iraq or Afghanistan with mental health issues, and, for more than a third who seek VA health care, the precipitating trauma was a sexual assault.

Every VA center now screens both men and women for sexual trauma. That is an improvement. Still, Duckworth says, “I don’t think the VA mental health care system is ready for (female veterans).” It would be encouraging to see a VA director who has some understanding of how important that is to fix.

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