VA looks for ways to better serve increasing number of women veterans
The Augusta Chronicle, Ga.
Kathleen Fitzpatrick is still adjusting to the concept of free time after leaving the Air Force in January.
The pace of life in Warrenville, S.C., is much slower compared with the long hours she put in during eight years as an officer supervising aircraft maintenance.
“I’m ready to work again,” said Fitzpatrick, 30, who is filling her time with nursing classes at the University of South Carolina Aiken.
Fitzpatrick’s retirement at the rank of captain places her into a growing number of female veterans entering the civilian population. The latest numbers from the Department of Veterans Affairs show that while the number of male veterans is expected to decrease by 2020, female veterans will increase in that same time span from 1.8 million in 2011 to 2 million.
The VA says that’s because of the increasing number and proportion of women entering and leaving the military, a better survival rate among women and a younger average age among female veterans. The estimated median age among women was 48, compared with 62 for male veterans in 2010.
At Augusta’s VA hospitals, women make up 15 percent of the treatment population and it’s expected to grow in the coming years, said Paula Martin, a program director at the downtown hospital’s women’s clinic.
“We’re changing the culture to reflect that as more and more women are coming into the facility for their needs,” Martin said.
In the draft of the women veterans strategic plan released May 15, VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said women are increasingly coming under direct-fire combat situations and suffering injuries similar to their male counterparts, “both in severity and complexity.” Studies from the VA show that 31 percent of women veterans have both medical and mental health conditions compared to 24 percent of male veterans.
Martin confirms that many of the women coming to the clinic are reporting the same depression and PTSD issues, but it’s not always combat related. One in five women reported military sexual trauma. A dedicated mental health specialist at the Augusta VA deals directly with that issue.
Fitzpatrick is a post-9/11 service member, putting her into the largest percentage of female veterans today. A ROTC scholarship to the University of Notre Dame led her into the Air Force, where she managed flight maintenance squads around the world. Military service taught her how to delegate duties, perform under pressure and manage large groups of subordinates, she said.
Her gender generally wasn’t an issue within the service, but it was acknowledged in different ways. The men under her command were more likely to come to her about their thoughts and feelings, and she would rely on her male flight chief to do the “kicking and screaming.” From a physical standpoint, Fitzpatrick said the heavy combat gear, or “battle rattle,” caused hip pain.
“Men and women bring different strengths and weaknesses,” Fitzpatrick said.
Katherine Hyer, a veterans advocate at Augusta Warrior Project and an Air National Guard veteran, said women are taught from basic training to stay tough in a male-dominated profession. That mentality drives them during active duty, but it’s tough to let go as a veteran, leading many females to wait until they hit rock bottom before reaching out for help, she said.
“We have to put up this front … because we don’t want to be weak,” she said.
©2012 The Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Ga.)
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