Traumatized Female Vets Face Uphill Battle

"I was also becoming the wife of a combat wounded veteran who was struggling with cognitive and psychological injuries," she said. "Instead of just worrying about my own challenges, I also had to try to help him overcome his own."

When she first returned to Washington, D.C. in 2005, few services catered to women veterans. "It would have been great if they could have pointed me toward resources that would have helped me -- like counseling," she said.

Williams also worries about the environmental effects of war. The couple tried to conceive for two years without success.

"Most of us were exposed to burning trash and burning plastic, feces and dead animals," she said. "Sometimes it's human medical waste. I am not sure what combination of chemicals might have affected me, but I worried about the burning plastic."

After several negative encounters with the VA, Williams eventually found good care in a specialized women's unit in West Virginia. "Women should be able to seek help in a community of their own peers," she said.

"By and large the VA does a pretty good job," said, who used the GI BIll to go to graduate school and now works at defense-related think tank. "But male and female disparities need to be addressed."

The VA, which serves 1.8 million females out of 8 million total veterans, has said it has heard these women and has already set in place a number of changes at its 153 hospitals and 783 outpatient clinics across the country.

One important step was staffing every VA medical center with a women veterans program manager and educating more doctors in female health.

""Now there is a national movement to raise the standard of comprehensive care for women vets at all facilities," said Dr. Laura Herrera, the VA's director of Women's Comprehensive Health.

"Unfortunately, we are the largest health care system in the country and educating and providing resources is taking some time," she said. "But we are moving in that direction."

Women Are 14 Percent of All Vets

Women returning from Afghanistan and Iraq are enrolling in the VA in "record numbers," according to Herrera, for everything from primary and reproductive care to mental health and brain injuries.

The VA is working "fast and furious" to provide specialized care for women, she said, updating services that were established for women in 1988, when they represented only 4.4 percent of the veterans' population.

"Getting people to think of women as part of military service is hard," said Herrera. "It is pervasive throughout the country and not just the VA system. We are working hard to educate the American public the role women service in the armed forces."

Recent initiatives include programs to provide comprehensive primary care and enhanced mental health services for women and the create better education programs in women's health for physicians. The VA is also supporting a multifaceted research program on women's health.

The VA also cites its Center for Women Veterans as a resource.

Herrara said one priority was to create better outreach to help women navigate the system.

"The care provided is some of the highest quality care in the country, not just in the VA," she said. "People want to get home and don't listen to the briefings. They don't necessarily know what the VA can do for them and read stories that not so positive and they think they're not going to get care. Many women are missing out on the superior care we are providing for women."

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