Panel focuses on women veterans issues
Allison Hickey (left) and Wilma Vaught participated in The American Legion's Women Veterans Panel on Aug. 27 in Minneapolis. Both are retired brigadier generals from the Air Force and Army, respectively. Photo by Marty Callaghan

Panel focuses on women veterans issues

A women veterans panel convened by The American Legion in late August in Minneapolis examined a variety of issues related to women veterans, including military sexual trauma (MST), post-traumatic stress (PTS), difficulties in readjusting to civilian life, and frustration over not being recognized as true veterans.

The panel, part of the Legion's Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Commission meeting, included retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, president of the Women In Military Service For America Memorial Foundation; retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Allison Hickey, under secretary for benefits in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA); Barbara O'Reilly, director of women veterans employment initiatives for the Minnesota VA; and Trista Matascastillo, who leads the Women Veterans Initiative in Minnesota.

Hickey encouraged Legionnaires to hold events and activities that would draw the interest of more women veterans. "Maybe it isn't a golf outing," she said. "Not a lot of women always play golf. Maybe it's something a little more - you know, you think about it from an integrated perspective, so that you bring women in. Maybe it's a day where you actually try to celebrate them and reach out to them."

Hickey said VA is becoming more responsive to the needs of women veterans, and that the Veterans Health Administration has added a women veterans coordinator to the staff of each VA medical facility.

"But sometimes, though, a woman gets through the door and she doesn't get to that woman coordinator," Hickey said. "If she does, I feel confident she's going to get hand-held all the way through the process" with appropriate sensitivity to gender-specific health issues. She asked The American Legion and other veterans service organizations to spread the word about women veterans coordinators and their role at VA facilities.

Hickey is working to get a women veterans coordinator at every VA Regional Office as well, "so we can handle this MST issue. We've got to stop the MST issue at the source ... and treat each other like professional military servicemembers and veterans together."

Currently, Hickey said, among disability claims for younger veterans, one in five test positive for MST. "And we've got to get rid of that. These are our daughters and our sons - we've got to get rid of that."

O'Reilly noted that about 40 percent of women veterans from OIF/OEF are mothers, and some of them have difficulties readjusting to domestic life. When women veterans return to their families, O'Reilly said, "Life is like you're being put into a popcorn popper, and there's chaos all around you - ‘Mom, mom, mom!' We don't have time to take care of ourselves. We get on with it. We have children to raise, work to do."

O'Reilly said that many women veterans don't feel as important in their civilian roles, switching from making critical decisions in combat zones to folding the family's laundry. "All of a sudden, we come home and there's nothing with meaning," she said. "I came back from Afghanistan in 2008, (and) I finally went to VA in 2011. I didn't think I needed to go. Most women are not going to start experiencing a challenge for about a year. And then, all of a sudden, it's really going to be that struggle of trying to fit in, trying to network, trying to find employment." After O'Reilly returned home, she looked for research that had been done on women veterans and their transition back to civilian life, and found that very little had been done.

Vaught noted that "enormous progress has been made" over the past 30 years in expanding the role of women in the military, including service in combat zones. Yet once these women return home, she said, many of them become frustrated by VA employees who refuse to believe they are combat veterans. "And the frustration that I have heard repeatedly - time and again - is when they go in (to a VA medical center) and it's ‘What's your spouse's last four?' Maybe they don't even have a spouse. But they want to be recognized for what they are - women veterans."

Vaught said the Legion and other VSOs should be reaching out to women veterans and getting them connected with VA health care - especially those suffering from post-traumatic stress - "because that is going to be with us, big time, for years to come." She has known veterans from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam who have suffered all their lives from PTS, without speaking to anyone about it. "Let us not do that again," she said. "Let us reach out and help these people."

Matascastillo told the audience that less than 1,500 women veterans out of 23,000 in Minnesota are using services available to them through VA. One reason for such low participation, she said, is that "nobody recognized that they are a veteran." She said that some women veterans are uncomfortable with a mostly male VA medical staff, especially those suffering from MST.

In Minnesota, the "Sister Assister" program has made it easier for women veterans to go to VA hospitals. Matascastillo explained that female greeters assigned to each medical center meet women veterans at the front door, and help them navigate through a sometimes daunting process.

"We don't go into the appointment," Matascastillo said. "We don't ask what their issues are. It's nothing private. But we're seen with them in the waiting room. We show them around."Verna Jones, director of the Legion's VA&R Division, announced that a new position had been established at Legion's Washington office: women veterans outreach coordinator. She has asked Legion departments to create similar positions so they can "go out and find out what women veterans need. "We oftentimes hear that women veterans want their own separate health-care facilities. But that's not true at all. What we want is quality health care, affordable medication, and fair and equitable compensation, just like our male counterparts.

"What we want you to take away from this (panel)," Jones said, "is that women veterans issues is not just a woman's issue, it's a veterans issue."

For more video from the panel:

Wilma Vaught

Barbara O'Reilly

Trista Matascastillo

Verna Jones