While serving in the military, few think about what comes next. What happens if you are injured and the physical, mental, emotional damage does not go away? Who is tasked to make you “whole” again through health care and compensation? It is a process with which most civilians, and many service members and their families have little familiarity. It is cumbersome, and starts when the individual is still in the service, with a transition program and virtually no follow up by the military.
For the last twenty years, the Department of Labor (DOL) Veterans Employment and Training Services (VETS) has provided grants to the National Veterans Training Institute (NVTI), which operates within the University of Colorado at Denver (UCD) to develop and implement training programs for the Department of Defense (DOD) to provide transition information to active duty personnel before they leave the military. To keep it simple, they titled the training “Transition Assistance Program (TAP) and taught the material to DOD personnel in a “train the trainer” model. While the intent and objectives were clear, and the benefits to military personnel enormous, implementation and utilization of the training was and continues to be inconsistent.
For example, a woman in an Army unit in Germany may benefit from a comprehensive transition assistance program beginning six months before she is due to rotate back to the states and process out of the service. Another woman at a base in the US may get a one-day overview of transition material. DOD is currently reviewing and revising these programs so personnel have consistent programs resulting in a smooth and informed transition to civilian life. To be perfectly honest, when most of those on active duty are approaching the end of their commitment, they just want to go home and feel they can figure out their next life steps once they are out.
To be fair, the military does have a special process for severely injured service members. They have medical boards and Warrior Transition Units. For the injured, ill and wounded, their effectiveness is also a mixed bag.
Most Americans think the Department of Veterans Affairs – commonly called the VA – steps in to assure those who serve receive immediate assistance upon leaving the military. Unfortunately, that is not even remotely close to reality. The VA is a massive organization, plagued with the problems of a gigantic entity. Imagine the surprise of the veteran who has survived their military service, especially over these last fourteen years of war, and faces yet another battle to receive benefits she has earned. Within the VA are three distinct entities that often are not in contact with one another: the Veterans Health Administration, the Veterans Benefits Administration and Cemeteries and Memorials.
Everyone who dons a uniform has different benefits to which they are entitled, depending on whether they served during wartime or peacetime, if they were assigned to a combat zone at some point, how long they served, what kind of discharge they received and a whole host of other considerations.
One of the biggest complaints of women veterans is access to appropriate gender specific care. You would think that every VA medical facility would have OB/GYN specialists, and you would be wrong. The VA is working very hard to correct inequities, yet still has a long way to go in terms of best practices. Veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have greater access and eligibility for health care services than their counterparts of previous eras. Even with these improvements, they never are sure what will be available in their area. Getting timely appointments is now a highly publicized portion of the VA crisis and still problematic for many veterans.
Women veterans in large urban areas often have services that are not even on the radar of smaller communities and rural areas. Conversely, a woman may have a perfect fit for mental health treatment, and a terrible Primary Care physician, or vice-versa. Consistency and continuity of care continue to drive complaints.
There are still few studies and little research about women veterans as a population, and even fewer that include women veterans input. Over the past few years, many women veteran advocates and activists have emerged around the country. Yet, the VA has not yet invited a broad range of emerging grass-roots leaders to contribute to understanding of national issues and development of effective staff trainings.
The new Secretary, Bob McDonald, has created task forces with both civilian and veteran representatives. Women veteran communities around the country are looking forward to recommendations ranging from the ramifications of injuries incurred in the military, and treatment modalities, to retraumatization. It is difficult for a woman harassed or sexually assaulted in the military to even enter the VA, which is another male dominated system. And yes, there is harassment and rape in VA facilities and lack of consistent programs and services for the treatment of “military sexual trauma (MST)”. In my opinion, reduction of felony crime to an acronym dilutes the severity and implications of sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape in OUR military, often by our brothers and sisters in arms, a form of incest.
Further, the way the benefits side of the VA determines disability status and compensation, which directly relates to both care and quality of life, has not been fully revisited since 1945. This year, the entire rating system is being overhauled.
According to a VA benefits executive, “This proposed change is intended to update, add and revise the current rating schedule. It is still open for comments until April 28, 2015 at www.Regulations.gov. One comment is from a male Veteran VA employee giving thanks for gender equality in the Veteran Affairs Schedule for Rating Disabilities (VASRD). The change has long been needed and will assist VA employees to better identify and rate gynecological conditions and disorders of the breast”. There is hope that women veteran claims will be treated more thoroughly and fairly with a new rating system in place.
There is a lot more hope among women veterans with a cadre of women executives holding key positions in the highest management levels of the department simultaneously for the first time in history. Many are women veterans with depth of skills, knowledge, ability and great passion for making a difference. The Assistant Secretary for Policy and Planning, Dr. Linda S. Schwartz, was confirmed six months ago. Her history of advocating for veterans goes back to her military service during Vietnam. The undersecretary for Benefits is Retired General Allison Hickey, a West Point graduate, who served 27 years in the military and, Dr. Carolyn Clancy serves as the Interim Undersecretary of the VA Health Administration. All of these women, along with Quality Control Executive Diana Williard, a former Drill Sergeant and Whistleblower, and Training and Development Lead Program Manager, former Seacor Marine Captain Lynne Patrick, avail themselves to veterans almost continuously. The Undersecretaries provide their email addresses to veterans, as does Secretary McDonald.
This is clearly the most transparent and available staff many of us have ever experienced, which faces a huge and cumbersome mission. They are struggling to repair this system while reacting and responding to daily individual veteran crisis. They are also sincerely committed to real transformation and cultural change of the second largest department of our government.
As women veterans using VA regional offices and health care facilities nationwide and in US territories, we want seats at the policy and procedures table:
- We are committed to participating in accomplishing real change.
- We are watching to insure this “new VA” fully reflects effective access, safety, accountability, communication and transparency.
- We are asking to participate on boards and councils, locally and nationally and to evaluate training to insure it is competency based, consistent and replicable.
- We are watching for massive increases in the number of veterans employed across the VA systems.
- We are watching for protection of whistleblowers and expansion of staff training.
“The day every single veteran gets the care they deserve and they have earned, then we can relax a little bit..” Secretary Robert McDonald, March 13, 2015, The Arizona Republic.
No one is relaxing anytime soon. We are staying vigilant.
Diana D. Danis is the National Outreach Director and Senior Advisor to Women Veteran Social Justice, headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia. Her world-view focuses on changing cultural paradigms that relegate women to a second-class status and affect their full and equal participation in society. She deeply understands that use of language, definitions, access, communication and inclusion in research determines how effectively women receive treatment in health care systems. Danis currently serves as the Vice President of One Billion Rising Veterans Empowerment Team USA and is a lead administrator for the social media platform of Service: When Women Come Marching Home as well as the women military and veteran’s advisor to People Demanding Action and ERA Action. For 16 years, she and her husband were Care Givers for six family members, gaining unique insight into insurance, medication, hospital, rehabilitation, nursing home and hospice systems. Her body of work includes contributions to the first comprehensive women veterans’ health programs legislation for the Department of Veterans Affairs while Executive Director of the National Women Veterans Conference. She contributed to development of the first McKinney Homeless Veterans Act as well as the Reasonable Accommodations in the workforce section of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Danis was the first military woman radio network news broadcaster on the American Forces Network while serving in the Army. During her service in Europe, she was one of a handful of women in the International Women’s Coalition for Change that created the first Women and Families Support Centers for the US Army in Europe to address domestic violence. She formerly served on the President Committee for Employment of People with Disabilities, was a member of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless Board of Directors and the Veterans Program Director for the International Association for Personnel in Employment Security while serving as a training development instructor and Course Manager at the National Veterans Training Institute. Danis developed and presented the first Diversity Training Course at the University of Colorado at Denver.