Stephanie Gattas, CEO of The Pink Berets, testifies during a virtual House Veterans' Affairs subcommittee meeting on March 18, 2021.

Stephanie Gattas, CEO of The Pink Berets, testifies during a virtual House Veterans' Affairs subcommittee meeting on March 18, 2021. (From an HVAC video)

WASHINGTON — After leaving the military, Stephanie Gattas was homeless and suffered from mental illnesses, such as PTSD. She struggled to find resources to help, the Navy veteran told House lawmakers.

She said her experiences inspired her to form the Pink Berets in 2015 -- a nonprofit that supports female veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, sexual trauma in the military, stress from combat trauma and other “invisible injuries.”

Gattas also told them about one of the female veterans who she was attempting to help.

“The story, like many, begins with a woman veteran grappling with a mental health crisis, homelessness for three years, and because of the nature of her illness, she was without a support system. I was homeless. I know the struggle,” she said Thursday during a hearing of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee subpanel on health.

It was the first time the new committee’s health subpanel met to discuss how to achieve equity for female veterans by ensuring they are safe and welcomed when accessing facilities and resources.

Gattas told lawmakers that health care for female veterans needs improvements in several areas in which the Department of Veterans Affairs can add and expand services to support them, beyond the newly passed Deborah Sampson Act – landmark legislation signed by former President Donald Trump in January that helps remove barriers and improves care for female veterans.

After Gattas took the veteran to a VA hospital where the woman was examined for substance abuse and a possible manic episode, she was released from the hospital but seven different providers said they could not help facilitate housing.

“I was told, ‘I’m sorry, we just don’t have enough resources for women veterans.’ The VA states they’re working to change this however, nothing has changed,” Gattas said.

The Deborah Sampson Act includes measures that target a range of issues for female veterans -- the fastest growing segment of the veteran population. It directed the creation of a dedicated Office of Women’s Health at the VA, provided $20 million to retrofit VA hospitals with health spaces for women, and made permanent a program to provide child care at VA facilities, among other measures.

But on Thursday, Gattas recommended the VA also needed to have women-focused mental health treatment centers, gender-specific housing and shelters capable of supporting military sexual trauma and trauma survivors, housing for women veterans and families, peer-support programs and increased access to mental health services and transitional services.

Leaders from four other veterans service organizations also offered their top priorities that address other inequities in access to care for female veterans that extend beyond the issues tackled in the Deborah Sampson Act.

“Due to their invisibility and inequitable access to care, women veterans are experiencing a rise in suicide rates and mental health crises, homelessness, health disparities and more,” said Lindsay Church, executive director and co-founder of Minority Veterans of America, an organization that advances justice for the minority veteran community, which includes women.

Church’s group is calling for several changes that include the VA’s motto to be more inclusive, the establishment of a center for sexual assault and harassment prevention, better data collection, especially for LGBTQ veterans to address health outcomes, and access to comprehensive and equitable family planning.

Lawmakers have long worked to address a pattern of abuse and harassment at VA medical facilities that often discourage female veterans from seeking medical care, but the issue persists.

Patricia Jackson-Kelley, president of National Association of Black Military Women, also suggested separate entrances at VA facilities for female veterans would also help to reduce fear of harassment. Only some VA facilities now have separate clinics or entrances for women.

Speaking from her own experience as a veteran of the Air Force and Air Force, Army and Navy reserves, Jackson-Kelley said having more minority providers represented at VA facilities is a top priority for her. Her Black nurse practitioner at the VA “has made a world of difference… it’s true that you have to have walked in somebody's shoes to understand and I just do not feel that we are doing enough to reach out to the minority providers to attract them.”

Minority communities have higher rates of chronic illnesses, Jackson-Kelley said, and they often “do not have their health care needs properly assessed and addressed, especially reproductive, pain management and mental health” treatment.

Minority women made up about 22% of the total veteran population in 2018, she said.

Jackson-Kelley also called for mandated access to legal clinics at VA facilities for low-income veterans, reproductive treatment and education included in women’s health programs, among other items.

Ashleigh Byrnes, deputy national communications director at Disabled American Veterans, and Jennifer Silva, Wounded Warrior Project’s chief program officer, also testified during the online hearing. Several other veterans service organizations provided written statements – something that Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., chairwoman of the subpanel, pointed out to demonstrate interest in the issue.

“We couldn’t have everybody testify in person, but I thought it was important for people to know the interest in this particular topic,” Brownley said, after reading off the names of eight groups who provided written statements.

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