Mary Dever is the assistant national communications director at Disabled American Veterans.
When former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta lifted the ban on women in combat roles in 2013, he gave the military two years to complete integration.
In 2015, two women successfully completed Army Ranger School, leading to a Pentagon decision calling for combat specialties to be opened to women. The following year, one of those women -- Army Capt. Kristen Griest -- became the first female infantry officer in American history.
With this change, and as the role of women in the military continues to expand, Women's History Month is the perfect time to recognize the thousands of women who fight to protect our country and how this new modern-day warrior is forcing changes in the services, programs and culture facing our veterans.
In fact, the number of women in the armed services -- and subsequent veteran population -- is rapidly increasing. According to the Defense Department, women now make up 20 percent of the Air Force, 19 percent of the Navy, 15 percent of the Army and almost 9 percent of the Marine Corps.
Women now make up approximately 10 percent of the current veteran population, the fastest-growing demographic. The number of female veterans treated at the VA almost tripled between 2000 and 2015. As a result of this rapid growth, the VA experienced difficulty meeting the clinical needs of female veterans at all sites of care.
"As we learn more through VA research about the impact of military service on the physical and mental health of women veterans and their specific needs, continued adjustments in federal programs and policies and new legislation will be needed to address the programmatic gaps," said Joy Ilem, national legislative director of Disabled American Veterans. "There's a culture shift happening in today's military, led by women trailblazers. These women need VA to be prepared for them not just today, but for future generations of women veterans."
In 2018, the DAV released a comprehensive new report, Women Veterans: The Journey Ahead, based on the quality of programs and services currently available to female veterans, as well as recommendations for shaping the VA culture and system to better serve this population.
"It's critical to remember that women aren't just small men," Ilem said. "Women's body proportions and hormonal makeup are different."
After Army veteran Brenda Reed had to have her leg amputated as the result of injuries sustained during her military service, she experienced firsthand that the VA is not as prepared to help a female veteran amputee as it should be.
"I got my first prosthetic six weeks after the amputation, and I didn't have any problems learning to walk on it," she said. "But it was getting the right fit, which still isn't good. I was under the impression I would be able to get a [prosthetic] foot for my size that looked similar, and it was just the opposite."
Reed was given a prosthetic foot designed for a man. As a solution to the poor fit, the VA opted to shave off parts of the prosthesis rather than provide her with one created for women.
"I was told [by the VA tech] I was the only woman that he had seen, and he wasn't exactly sure what to do because he had never done prosthetics for women," Reed said. "I told him it shouldn't be any different from doing it for a man. A fit is a fit. If it doesn't fit, it isn't right."
The VA is trying to implement new policies to address the barriers female veterans using their services face and created the Center for Women Veterans as a resource to help them navigate the system. However, Ilem said, VA officials need to look at what's happening in today's military and the long-term impact of that service on women's physical and mental health, so they are prepared to meet the future needs of female veterans.
"When women raise their right hands and swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States, they understand it could mean sacrificing their lives," said DAV National Commander Dennis Nixon. "Military service requires placing this duty above their personal well-being. Unfortunately, the sacrifices they make are not always recognized or acknowledged, and women work hard to reconcile their societal roles as caregivers, mothers and wives with the warriors they are."
Ilem added, "Women experience military service differently than men and have different post-deployment challenges and distinct health care needs. They also rightly expect VA health providers and benefit representatives to have expertise in women's health and to be knowledgeable about their military service."
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