Study Examines War's Effects on Female Vets

WASHINGTON -- The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is launching a four year, $5.6 million study of women veterans who served in the Vietnam War to examine their mental and physical health nearly 40 years later.

As female Vietnam vets reach their mid-60s it's important to understand how wartime deployment has affected their health, a release from the VA said.

For the study, researchers will interview and review the medical records of 10,000 female veterans who served in Vietnam, elsewhere in Southeast Asia, and in the U.S. during the Vietnam War.

It will assess the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), other mental and physical problems and the relationship between PTSD and other conditions.

The findings from the study will be used to shape future research and to provide services for the aging veteran population, the agency said.

Women veterans are one of the fastest growing segments of the veteran population. In 1988, women made up just 4 percent of the veteran population, but now that percentage has nearly doubled. By 2020, one in ten veterans will be a woman, according to the VA.

To focus on the issue, the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs held a hearing in July on the unique health issues that female veterans face.

Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) said the needs of female veterans are sometimes overlooked in the VA system.

"Many women veterans in need of services fall through the cracks because VA doesn't have a thoroughly gender-focused range of care set up to catch them," Akaka said at the hearing. "For too long, the approach to helping veterans avoid obstacles to VA benefits and services has been predominately focused on men."

During the hearing, Kayla Williams, an Iraq War vet, said there are issues in being a female soldier that male soldiers do not understand.

"They may be aware of, but not be able to fully empathize with, the challenges of facing regular sexual harassment," Williams testified. "And they certainly do not understand what it is like to feel invisible as a veteran, as many women veterans do."

"It is therefore vital that the VA provide times or places where women veterans, especially those who may have experienced military sexual trauma, can feel safe and comfortable seeking help in a community of their peers," she said.

Eric Shinseki, secretary of Veterans Affairs at the VA, said that one of his top priorities is to meet the needs of female vets.

"Our Veterans have earned the very best care," Shinseki said in the release. "VA realizes that women veterans require specialized programs, and this study will help VA provide high-quality care for women veterans of the Vietnam era."

On hearing of the VA's announcement, Akaka said he was pleased.

"I applaud VA for conducting this study. As VA prepares for the increasing number of women veterans from the current wars, it is as important to better understand the needs of women who served before them. More than three decades after the war in Vietnam, this study is long overdue."

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