Rethinking veteran culture ... that was then, this is now

Rethinking veteran culture ... that was then, this is now

By Ebun Croom-Osaze

March is Women's Veterans History Month, in which we are celebrating more than 200 years of women's contributions.

That was then ...

Although the history of women serving in the armed forces of the United States is as old as the country itself, women formally were not incorporated into the U.S. military until Congress established a nurse corps for both the Army (1901) and Navy (1908). Because these were auxiliary status services, women were not at the time given the designation of either rank or veteran's benefits. Despite these limitations, 34,000 women served during World War I and 350,000 served during World War II. Many of these (approximately 68,000) functioned as nurses while the remainder performed numerous administrative and support roles (Dienstfrey, 1988).

The Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC), authorized by Congress in 1942, was reorganized as the Women's Army Corps (WAC) a year later. Unlike its predecessor, the latter had full military status. Similar units were inaugurated in other branches: Navy-Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES), Coast Guard-Semper Paratus/Always Ready (SPAR), and the Marine Corps-Women Marines (WM) (Dienstfrey, 1988).

In 1948, the Women's Armed Service Integration Act eliminated special women's units, although it initially limited the number of enlisted women serving. During the Korean War, approximately 46,000 women served. Only nurses were stationed in Korea.

The continued expansion of women's roles is well-documented during the Vietnam War. During that period, 261,000 women were on active military duty. Some estimates indicate that 7,500 women served in Vietnam, including 5,000 in the Army, 2,000 in the Air Force, 500 in the Navy and 27 in the Marines.

Seven Army nurses and one Air Force nurse died in Vietnam (Dienstfry, 1988). During this time in history there was variance in reported statistics regarding women veterans, reflecting the fact that the military did not record totals by gender and, "Because records of military assignments were inaccurate, the exact number is not known" (Schwartz 1993), leading to discrepancies in the figures reflected in individual studies.

The number of women who were assigned to post-Vietnam conflicts included 149 women in Grenada, 770 in Panama with 170 being sent as a direct result of the conflict (600 already were stationed there), and 40,000 in operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm (ODS), according to the Department of Defense.

During ODS, there was a dramatic change in the proportion of women in the U.S. armed forces. The total number of Americans, both male and female, deployed to the Persian Gulf region was over 537,000 and included 100,000 reservists and National Guard. An additional 128,000 reservists were activated and assigned to military installations in Europe and the United States (Becraft, 1991). Uniquely important is that over 40,000 women served in combat support positions performing a myriad of functions (Utilization, 1991).

This is now ...

Women are now the fastest-growing subgroup of U.S. veterans.

Since the year 2000, the number of women Veterans using VA services has more than doubled from nearly 160,000 to more than 337,000. As of 2007, 14.3 percent of active-duty military (all branches) are women. Of this unique group, 11 percent of the fighting force in Iraq and Afghanistan are women. The number of women veterans is expected to increase substantially in the next 10 years, and VA health care is expected to be in high demand by the young women veterans of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Impact locally, the VA Women Veterans Health Program has been in existence since 1985. The Veterans Health Care Act of 1992 enabled the VA to dramatically improve its programs for women veterans, establishing state-of-the-art facilities and programs that focus on women's health, creating an environment that is warm, compassionate, comfortable and private. The program provides a full range of medical, mental health and social support services, including: primary care, gynecology services, patient education, reproductive health care, maternity care, HIV tTesting, infertility evaluation, and preventive health screenings for breast cancer, cervical cancer and osteoporosis. Screenings, counseling and treatment for sexual trauma, substance abuse, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and domestic violence. Other programs include: vocational rehabilitation, homeless programs, telehealth and research.

Every VA Medical Center has a Women Veteran Program Manager (WVPM) who helps women understand their benefits and coordinates their care. The WVPM is most often a clinician who works as an advocate to assist women veterans in: Establishing their eligibility, benefits and obtaining their health care in the VA system.

The Women's Health Clinic established in 2010 is located at the VA Illiana Healthcare System in Danville, IL. and has Women Health trained providers and staff in our five community-based clinics throughout central Illinois and western Indiana (Decatur, Mattoon, Peoria, Springfield and West Lafayette, understands the healthcare needs of women veterans and is committed to meeting these needs by providing Comprehensive Medical Care and Services. Women Veterans have served throughout history and they deserve the best quality care.

For additional information: Dienstfrey, S.J., 1988,"Women veterans' exposure to combat," Armed Forces and Society, 14, pp.549-588; Becraft, C., 1991, Women in the U.S. Armed Services: the war in the Persian Gulf, Washington, D.C.: Women's Research and Education Institute; Women Veterans Working Group, 1995, "She Served Too, a report on Women Veterans," Readjustment Counseling Service U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, p.3.

Ebun Croom-Osaze, PA-C, is the Women Veterans Program Manager at the Women's Health Clinic (11-C WVP), VA Illiana Health Care Systems, 1900 E. Main St., Danville, IL 61832.