This post is part of a new series, Disparities & Disservice: Women Veterans Deserve Better Health Care. The series will culminate with a briefing on Thursday, November 13 at noon.

A very personal story illustrates why we continue to have disparities, especially in health care, among women who served in the military.

I was at an event a number of years ago and towards the end of the program, the master of ceremonies, a retired Admiral, called on veterans by war service to stand and be recognized.  Ten WWII veterans stood and took a bow; four Korean War veterans came to their feet and were honored.  The Admiral then asked for Vietnam War veterans to stand and a third of all in attendance stood and the room went crazy in applause.  At that moment I realized that I was still sitting!  There I was, a 22 year Army veteran who served during the Vietnam and Gulf wars and I was still sitting…it was like a kick in the stomach and then I got angry at myself and the fact that I, who knows better, got distracted by the relationship that the word veteran has to serving in a war which correlates to deployment and combat.

All this all happened in a matter of seconds and once I snapped out of it, I stood up to receive the recognition I was due among my wartime peers.  I did not serve in the war, but I was part of the Vietnam War as I cared for our wounded and their families in military hospitals.  Whether we are in the combat zone, supporting the combat forces or during peacetime, military service has no boundaries and every woman who served is a veteran.

This is one of the barriers women veterans have to overcome.  We must self-validate to attract recognition to our sacrifices so that we can demand the benefits and services we earned.  Self-validation so that the systems that serve us in sickness and in health do so in a gender targeted way.  Self-validation to use our voices to drive and accelerate change so that women who are serving and those who served long ago get timely, quality care.

Washington State is on a crusade to ensure our women veterans claim their earned place in order to partake in the vast array of services currently available.  Our women veterans are fighting very intimate wars with Military Sexual Trauma, Traumatic Brain Injury and service related illnesses and conditions.  As a result, those who don’t receive just in time services fall victims to homelessness, joblessness, incarceration and in the ultimate insult to the human condition, suicide.

Our grandmothers, mothers, sisters and friends served, don’t talk about it and therefore don’t access the wealth of resources that are available.  The Federal VA system is changing to better serve women’s specific needs, but they are not there yet.  Each woman veteran, young and not, needs to claim what is hers and therefore increase demand for a greater supply of services.  Strength in numbers will turn up the volume on our needs so decision makers respond to implement systems that are sensitive to our needs, agile and proactive.

BIO: Alfie Alvarado serves as the Director of the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs.  The Department serves as the statewide advocate for the benefits and services veterans and their families earned.  She was born in Puerto Rico and served 22 years on active duty retiring as the Command Sergeant Major of Madigan Army Medical Center and Troop Command, Joint Base Lewis McChord.  During her military career, she was the recipient of military awards and decorations that include the Legion of Merit, Order of Military Medical Merit, Expert Field Medical Badge and Meritorious Service Medals. She has received local, state and national awards including the Governor’s Distinguished Management Leadership Award and the Lifetime Achievement Award for women in the military from the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) and the VA Secretary’s Leadership Award.


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9 Responses to “Am I a Veteran?”

  1. Diana D. Danis Says:

    Thank you Alfie. A true and so very frequent account of how women often reference their service. Many will not even acknowledge they have worn the uniform. Older women vets are not alone in this. To add insult to injury, Sexual harassment, assault and rape in the service (referenced as Military Sexual Trauma – MST) and resulting in Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is not being properly reviewed for disability claims in many areas of the country. A number of those making such decisions do not think sexual trauma survivors’ PTSD should be treated equally with that of combat veterans. The disparities are near endless.

    We all do our best to “read”situations. Sadly, many military women “male identify” to survive their military service, as do many civilian women moving up the corporate ladder. Slowly, our society is becoming more aware of gender bias in its many manifestations. The big question we must decide as individuals seeking cultural change toward equality in all aspects of our lives, is this: How much and which portion of our lives are to be ruled by fear? – Fear of not getting ahead, fear of upsetting the status quo, fear of retaliation, fear of rejection. We have to be more present, more represented, more persistent. It is apparently buried in our genome: we, as women, must always do and be more. I do hope that massive SIGH was audible!

  2. Christina D. Thundathil Says:

    I hate to say I disagree with your article. I am a female combat veteran. I served in Balad, Iraq for 1 year. Should females be treated equal? Yes, I am all for that. What I am not for is saying that non-combat veterans are = to combat veterans. As a female I stood guard duty, watched people get killed, suffered a blast injury 6 months before my rape and that is not counting the aircraft we lost to attacks… So, anyone wanting the praise of being in a combat zone, I suggest they go. Don’t compare combat vets to non-combat. The injuries are not the same, trauma not the same and we often have to wait longer just to get the help we need. You are comparing apples to oranges. Its like the poor wanting to be rich. They want to be recognized without the same hard work and want a handout. No, it does not work that way.

  3. Meri Says:

    I didn’t come away with the article being about combat vs. non-combat veterans, but about women veterans, all women veterans. Sexual assaults, physical assaults, etc., are traumatic, some very devastating, healing being a path yet to be found for many of us. The diagnosis of PTSD is not assigned only to war trauma and it doesn’t take away from those that did “go.” Generalizations of the poor and comparing that to veterans, with the supposed wanting a “handout” opinion, speaks to me of the misunderstanding that exists in the very system this article speaks about. Just as many poor work very hard to rise above their circumstances, not the one they chose, making it not their fault, so is the path for the veteran, not what they chose, not their fault for what happened to them. Facing a system of care and benefits that, dependent on location, may not be equal for many veterans needing the “help,” plays a major role as it is the participant that fosters the opinion that we should be disputing the combat vs. non-combat. Instead of fighting each other, there may be more gain for changes, if we, the veterans, work towards the goal for a system that serves all veterans and serves them well.

  4. Link Schwartz Says:

    Link Schwartz…

    Am I a Veteran? | Disruptive Women in Health Care…

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  8. Karen Kilburn Says:

    The compensation process is still very biased towards males as well. I hAve had to fight hard for EVERYTHING within the VA system programs for comp and Voc Rehab programs.

  9. karen Says:

    I am offended as hell by Christina’s comments. I am a retiree. I served during the Gulf War, Panama Invasion, Somalia, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. I deployed to Hungary for a year 1995-1996. I left my young sons a freaking year. I deployed to El Salvador for Hurricane Mitch relief. I was serving in Korea during 9/11 and the chaos in the aftermath as a soldier as “all protocol” changed that day. After Korea U was reassigned to Ft Irwin AKA NTC. I was the PM of the CSSSMO. Our mission was to ensure combat service support soldiers were trained and equipment ready for deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan. This was a 24 on call mission. This ensured soldiers could get the beans, bullets, repair parts etc in the combat zone. Every soldier plays a very important role making the military what it is. Female soldiers ahead of you paved the way for you to have more opportunities as a female in the military.
    MST occurs in basic training, AIT, assignments around the world not just in a combat zone.

    Please don’t think you are a more elite veteran based on your assignment to a combat zone then those who served elsewhere.

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