Women veterans being recognized

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 18, 2004

Operation Iraqi Freedom is pushing the boundaries for women at war. Never before have women played such extensive roles in combat.

The lack of a clearly defined battlefield means women face the same threats as men serving in combat-specific military specialties. More than 20 women have been killed in Iraq and about 150 wounded.

Their stories captivated public interest and came to symbolize key moments in the war. There was the ambush on the road to Baghdad with Jessica Lynch, Lori Piestawa and Shoshana Johnson. Then there was the death of Michelle Witmer, one of three sisters serving in Iraq with the Wisconsin National Guard. Finally there were the Abu Ghraib prison abuses, with Pfc. Lynndie England and Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski.

The evolving role of women in the military was among the topics addressed during the third National Summit on Women Veterans Issues June 18-20 in Washington, D.C.

More than 300 women veterans attended the event. They came together todevelop recommendations on how to better serve women veterans’ needs. The program featured a series of workshops with topics ranging from homelessness and employment assistance to women’s health and military sexual trauma.

“VA cannot do it alone. We need to work together,” said Dr. IreneTrowell-Harris, a former major general in the Air National Guard who nowdirects the VA Center for Women Veterans. The team effort included individual veterans, various VA headquarters offices, other federal agencies and veterans service organizations.

By bringing federal agencies together with the women who use their services,organizers hope to identify what’s working and what isn’t. “Women are the fastest growing veteran population. We want VA to have the resources necessary to meet their needs, and that’s an ongoing process,” said participant Joy Ilem, an Army veteran and assistant national legislative director for the Disabled American Veterans.

About a dozen members of the Tennessee Valley Women Veterans Network attended the event. They brought their “Wall of Honor” exhibit, which details the history of women in the military. It was one of about 20 exhibits on display.

MaryAnn Woodward-Smith, the women veterans program manager at the VA hospital in Nashville, started the network in 1997 to reach out to women veterans living in middle Tennessee. Today, the group has evolved into a “sisterhood” of about 300 members who perform outreach and various community projects. In 1998, they helped establish Angel’s Landing, the state’s first transitional living shelter for women veterans.

The summit gave attendees an opportunity to learn more about various issues. Many expressed particular interest in the mental health and sexual trauma workshop.

The subject made headlines in early June when the Army reported a steady rise in sexual assaults over the last five years. View the full report at:

www4.army.mil/ocpa/reports/index.html. A June 3 Washington Post story showed the number of reported sexual assaults in the Army rose from 658 in 1999 to 783 in 2002, an increase of 19 percent. The findings could mean an increase in future demand for VA sexual trauma services.

Currently, approximately 2 percent of men and 20 percent of women veterans seeking VA services experienced some form of sexual trauma-from harassment to rape, according to VA screening database figures. Treating sexual trauma is difficult, experts say, because the symptoms can manifest in a variety of physical or mental conditions.

“Sexual trauma is very elusive. It can’t be put in a box,” said Carole L. Turner, R.N., an Air Force veteran who serves as director of the Women Veterans Health Program in the Veterans Health Administration. “Our providers are structuring individual treatment plans based on the veterans’ specific needs. … We have a duty to assist. And we have a vast amount of resources, expertise and legislative support to help these veterans.”

Sharing information on those resources is one reason Delphine Metcalf-Foster came to the summit. She gave organizers credit for bringing issues to the forefront, but expressed concern about the availability of group counseling for women who suffered sexual trauma. In many cases, these women are put in PTSD treatment groups with men who experienced combat trauma, she explained.

“You can’t put them in group therapy with a bunch of guys. The VA needs to be very sensitive about this,” said Metcalf-Foster, a Gulf War veteran who serves as commander of the California Department of the Disabled American Veterans.

By summit’s close, the working groups had identified specific areas to address. Their final recommendations will be presented to Secretary Principi later this year, according to Trowell-Harris. They are then distributed to

Congress and throughout the women veterans community. For more information, visit the Center for Women Veterans Web site, www.va.gov/womenvet <window._taboola = window._taboola || []; _taboola.push({mode:'alternating-thumbnails-a', container:'taboola-below-article-thumbnails', placement:'Below Article Thumbnails', target_type: 'mix'});