The current global war on terror illustrates a few deficiencies in services provided for women veterans. Never before have women servicemembers been engaged in constant combative environments. Participation in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom has forced them to expand their military roles to ensure their own survival, as well as the survival of their units. They sustain the same types of injuries that their male counterparts endure. Any future women veterans’ research will need to take into consideration the physical effects of combat on women veterans, not just mental effects of combat and military sexual trauma.
Since women veterans are sometimes the family’s sole caregivers, services and benefits designed to promote independent living for combat-injured veterans will need to consider other needs – like child care during rehabilitation. This dynamic should also be considered more when designing domiciliary and homeless women veteran programs. Homeless veterans’ service providers’ clients have historically been almost exclusively male. That is changing as more women veterans and women veterans with young children have sought help. Additionally, the approximately 200,000 female Iraq veterans are isolated during and after deployment, making it difficult to find gender-specific peer-based support. Reports show that one of every 10 homeless veterans under the age of 45 is now a woman. Access to gender-appropriate care for these veterans is essential.
In the past 10 years, the number of homeless women veterans has tripled. In 2002, the VA began a study of women and PTSD. The study includes subjects whose PTSD resulted from stressors that were both military and non-military in nature. Preliminary research shows that women currently serving have much higher exposure to traumatic experiences, rape and assault prior to joining the military. Other reports show extremely high rates, 20 to 40 percent, of sexual trauma while women are in the service. Repeated exposure to traumatic stressors increases the likelihood of PTSD. Researchers also suspect that many women join the military, at least in part, to get away from abusive environments. Like the young veterans, these women may have no safe supportive environment to return to, adding yet more risk of homeless outcomes.
Providing quality health care in a rural setting has proven to be very challenging, given factors such as limited availability of skilled care providers and inadequate access to care. Even more challenging will be VA’s ability to provide treatment and rehabilitation to rural veterans, including women veterans, who suffer from the signature ailments of the ongoing global war on terror – traumatic blast injuries and combat-related mental health conditions. VA’s efforts need to be especially focused on these issues.
Gaining access to the nearest facility providing gender-specific services can prove even more of an obstacle, since the nearest facility may be a community-based outpatient clinic that may not offer these services.
There were 1.8 million living women veterans in 2008. In 2008 453,250 women veterans enrolled in the VA health-care system for care. The number of women veterans enrolled in the system is expected to grow by 33 percent in the next three years. Over 102,126 female veterans served in OEF/OIF as of September 2008. Of those, 44.2 percent have enrolled in the VA health-care system. Post-traumatic stress disorder), hypertension, and depression were the top three diagnostic categories for women veterans treated by VA health care. Twenty-two percent of women screened positive for military sexual trauma, compared to 1.2 percent of men. Of all the OEF/OIF veterans who used VA health care in 2007, 16.7 percent of women and .8 percent of men screened positive for MST.