Janice Lynch Schuster

During last week’s Veteran’s Day inspired concerts and tributes to veterans, a Hill-gathering of Disruptive Women (and our man of the month, Rep. Tim Walz, MN) spoke truth with power. Gathered to discuss challenges faced by women veterans, the group included veterans, members of Congress and their spouses, congressional staff, state leaders, and filmmakers. The group had had enough of platitudes and promises. We were ready for disruption, and Rep. Walz delivered just that, saying he was done with “incremental change” (Washington’s latest, favorite buzz-word) and prepared to lead “seismic change.”

walz panelWalz speaks from a place of experience, knowledge, and passion: He is a retired soldier, and the highest rank ranking enlisted man to serve in Congress. During a 24 year stint in the Army National Guard, including a tour of duty in Operation Enduring Freedom, he also taught high school. The latter tour provided him some insight into chaos and disruption. In the 113th Congress, he will serve in leadership roles that include the National Guard and Reserves Caucus, and the Congressional Veterans Jobs.

In his remarks, Walz noted that “it doesn’t take much to offer health care that people can’t access.” He added that although the VA has made some progress since the days when “the best thing the VA could say for what it had done for women was that the exam tables no longer  that face the door.” Later, he added that the VA system—staffed by dedicated people—still has far to go to really offer care for all, noting that, “it is much easier to put up a yellow ribbon then it is to step up care.”

As recent Veterans Health Administration scandals have revealed, its challenges go beyond exam room layout – and problems reflect deeper challenges within the system in particular and American culture in general.panel

The day’s two other panelists included Emmy award-winning filmmaker Patty Lee Stotter, whose award-winning documentary, Service: When Women Come Marching Home, uses women’s voices to tell their story. Director of Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs, Lourdes E. (Alfie) Alvarado-Ramos, detailed her state’s actions to address specific problems.
Stotter has crafted films to give women veterans a place to speak. Her presentation included quotes from several women veterans, and included poignant thoughts, such as these:

“Tell them how I had to file a congressional inquiry two years after my daughter was born because the VA was NOT paying my prenatal care bills, which impacted my credit score…Tell them that the stress of being billed throughout my pregnancy with no advocacy from the VA left me crippled with PTSD and physical pain.”

“Tell them I was told that I should leave my boots on while having a trans-vaginal ultrasound because the stirrups were so filthy.”

 “Today, I am fighting for my life. I have an extreme case of PTSD that has rendered me housebound. I have been in the disability claims process for nearly 4 years…”

 “I was raped in Iraq and when I went to report it I was told I was lying and probably wanted it. I was denied the right to get medical help.”

alfie panelAlvarado-Ramos, a veteran herself, offered models from the other Washington that reflected possibilities for change and improvement. Washington State, she said, has, 70,000 women veterans, and, by 2040 there will be a much higher percentage of women veterans including those on active duty as the number of men will continue to decline. She listed a dozen programs underway, most brand-new and inspired by her own service. These include: establishment of a women’s veterans committee; development of a veteran’s registry to better tracking and inform veterans; hiring more women service officers to help veterans of claims; and creation of a statewide information campaign to educate the public and raise awareness of veterans’ ongoing struggles.

All of these programs represent a step toward addressing shameful situations that our veterans encounter – including homelessness, food insecurity, incarceration, mental health problems, sexual assault and economic hard times.

In a follow-up interview with Disruptive Women, Stotter talked about gender stereotyping and discrimination, and its toll on women veterans. I told her about MacArthur genius Ai-jen Poo’s work to organize domestic workers in New York City: When Ai-jen talks about women’s work—particularly paid housekeeping and babysitting–she notes that we simply do not value or compensate the people who do the work that allows the rest of us to do our work.

“Exactly!” Patty said. “We don’t reward the work that allows the rest of us to be free.” She continued, “I am furious that hard-working people who serve get so little service in return. Going to war, our military experiences the worst of what the universe has to offer.  When I observe our country’s response to  meeting the needs of out  veterans, I fear that  our country has lost its soul.”

roomIt was the first time in a decade of attending DC panel discussions that I went home and spent three hours writing a poem about what I had heard.  Earlier in the week I’d written an essay about Bruce Springsteen’s performance at The Concert for Valor, and my appalling realization that our veterans must rely on the national equivalent of bake sales to resume civilian life.

I am proud to join this movement to advocate for women veterans. Not a veteran myself, I cannot imagine what women veterans have endured. But as a midlife woman, I know too well what it means to have a voice that is silenced. A voice that gets shouted down or shamed or discounted. A voice that gets shoved against the wall with a knife. A voice that does not dominate the room.

As a Disruptive Woman, I know what it means to reclaim your voice, to use it for good, to launch seismic change that echoes for many, and that helps people build new and safer shelters within their own minds, bodies, and lives.

Each and every Disruptive Woman should join our sisters in this battle. We can all sing in this chorus. Perhaps not from the same page or even the same score, but in a song that raises our voices and lifts them for those who, just now, cannot do it for themselves.

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3 Responses to “Lift Every Voice: Listen to Women Veterans”

  1. Diana D. Danis Says:

    Thank you for such a dynamic piece. Thank you for listening and being open to what women in the services and as veterans experience. Thanks to all of you for inviting us to work together with Disruptive Women in Health Care.

    To put the struggle in context, there are some 22 million veterans. Just under two million are women across ALL generations. Depending on which stats you use, between six and eight million total veterans use the VA and between six and 10 percent of those are women. When the health care systems military and veteran women must use are designed by and for men, the lion’s share of services and concern will be concentrated on and for the majority.

    We so need civilian women and men to help improve our access, safety, security, communication and transparency. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

  2. Brenda Espino Says:

    So many things…my priority right now is, tho homeless going on 5! Years now, to keep our (have non-military husband…both of us unable to get jobs)…..butts outta that dry riverbed/under that overpass with the tweakers and alcoholics…which We are Not!… am approximately 30 days from that tho, since my vehicle is old and falling apart and costibg me way too much to keep up with….Do Not want housing…CANNOT AFFORD IT!!!
    Just help me finance anything Newer.
    Then REPEAL ALL HOMELESSNESS LAW enacted by Gov Brown!!!
    Thank you for your valuable time and consideration,
    Brenda Espino

  3. Ret LTC Mary E Hoettels Says:

    The Milwaukee VA Hospital clinics still have the exam tables FACING the doors. The veteran patient is place in a seat opposite the door with the physician, physician assistant or nurse practitioner between you and the door.

    When you ask for a female chaperone if you are assigned a male caregiver, your request is ignored. This hospital has multiple specialty care sections which are staffed by male physicians only. When I have requested off-station payment to see a female specializing in the disease area, I am denied.

    The rationale for cardiology and othopedics was stated to me as there is no difference in the treatment of women’s cardiology needs and that women’s knees are the same as men’s knees. These statements come from the Chief of Medicine for this hospital. However, do note the hospital providing the physicians for this VA offers specialized care for women in both cardiology and orthopedics.

    This hospital discontinued MST counseling for women veterans who served before the Afghanistan, Iraq and African war zones. I was fortunate to connect with Veterans Quest and get the counseling I need. ‘

    My pacemaker should have come out this spring and replaced according to the manufacturer, but it does not meet the VA criteria for replacement.

    I could continue but there is too much. The only comment though I wish to add is the sexual harassment I endured during my military career is alive and well in the VA system and well tolerated by those in charge. I expected a a higher standard of values in the VA; it continues to be so absent.

    The comments listed in your paragraphs are many I have experienced. The platitudes I still continue to receive are to have patience because the VA has to have time to adjust to women in its system. I have a book that in its guidance it warned the VA to prepare for the women who will be coming; the date of this notice is 1984.

    There was a failure to read and head this guidance. I have two daughters in uniforms. I pray that by the time they retire, they will get access to benefits and health care as they earned. I also hope the men have the same. All this should be seamless.

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