More than 230,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, but many report that when they return from war, they face another battle at home: getting the care and respect they need at VA hospitals.
The traditionally male-dominated environment often doesn't recognize that women veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have experienced the same psychological, physical and emotional trauma as male veterans. VA hospitals across the nation are taking a number of steps to treat the whole female veteran.
'A Female Thing'
When retired Air Force Reserve Cmdr. Gwen Sheppard, 47, returned home to suburban Milwaukee from Iraq in 2003, and began having a range of medical problems, including trouble remembering things. She wondered whether inhaling smoke that had been all around during a dangerous mission in Iraq had made her sick.
But back in 2004, the Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center in Milwaukee did not seem prepared to handle Iraq veterans, especially women.
"A lot of times, I would get blown off with things," says Sheppard. She says she was told, "Oh, well, that's just a female thing."
"I'm like, 'No, there's something going on. I know my body. You guys need to dig a little deeper,' " she says.
Sheppard was sick and not getting any answers — or the respect she felt she deserved.
"A lot of areas in the VA will still call you mister.' They don't even look at the first name, and they'll say, 'Mr. Sheppard.' And, of course, that's a trigger for me," she says.
'We Are Veterans, Too'
Jill Feldman, manager of the Women Veterans Health Care Program at the Milwaukee VA, says Sheppard's experience is not unusual, and that the hospital is working to change the culture. There are posters plastered along the walls to remind everyone that women, well, are not men.
The poster features two women veterans, and it says, "We are veterans, too. Ms. or Mrs. will do."
Feldman says the VA is also working to make sure female patients see doctors who specialize in comprehensive women's care.
"For a long time, women had split off kinds of care. They would see a primary care provider who saw mostly men, and then for their gender-specific needs, they would be sent to one provider who just did paps, pelvic exams, that kind of thing," Feldman says.
The Milwaukee VA boasts a new women's clinic with a waiting area set aside to make women vets feel more at ease while waiting to be seen. But there are mostly men sitting there. Inside the clinic, just a few exam rooms are set aside for female patients.
Dr. Kayt Havens, the women's medical director at the Milwaukee VA, says the clinic is a work in progress. Once a month, she teleconferences with her counterparts at other veterans hospitals.
"We have common threads now, so that you could start a program here in Milwaukee, and if it works well, then it can get picked up by other VA systems."
There's a bill pending in Congress that would authorize a study of women who've served in Iraq and Afghanistan to find out how the wars have affected their physical, mental and reproductive health.
The bill also would require a review of the barriers women face in accessing VA health care.