By Rep. Julia Brownley (D-CA), chairwoman of the health subcommittee of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs. 

Originally published in Stars and Stripes.

The first female combat veteran was wounded in action in 1782 while serving in George Washington’s army during the Revolutionary War. Deborah Sampson, disguised as a man, was shot twice in the leg. Terrified she would be discovered, she removed one of the bullets herself. Her leg never fully healed. After the war, she married and became a mother. While Congress granted her a pension in 1805, Deborah Sampson continued to struggle with the long-term health impacts of her combat wounds for the rest of her life.

Our country has come a long way since the Revolutionary War when it comes to how we care for female veterans. But this Women’s Health Week, it’s essential we recognize how much more we must do to ensure equitable treatment for all who have served our nation in uniform.

Since the Revolutionary War, women have served in the military in every American conflict. Despite this long history of service, former servicewomen were not granted veteran status until the 1980s. That means that even the 400,000 women who served during World War II and the 250,000 women who served during the Vietnam era were not recognized as veterans after their service.

Today, more than 2 million female veterans live in the United States, representing the fastest growing demographic of veterans in the country; and, over the last five years, 30% of new patients at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs have been women. Yet, female veterans still face inequities and shortfalls in access to health care because the VA and many long-standing Veteran Service Organizations were built for men. In order to identify and address these gaps, my colleagues and I in Congress formed a new bipartisan Women Veterans Task Force that will be laser-focused on these issues.

In the military, service women are an extremely visible minority. When they return to their communities, they become invisible veterans. As Army veteran Joy Ilem, now national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, testified in a recent hearing before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, “There is no bigger barrier to care than a culture that does not embrace women veterans or, at best, makes them feel marginalized.”

Supporting female veterans starts first and foremost by recognizing that they exist, that they have served honorably and that their experiences and health needs are often significantly different than those of male veterans and nonveteran women.

Female veterans have distinct needs and challenges. The troubling epidemic of sexual violence in the military disproportionately impacts women. While women were categorically excluded from combat by policy until 2013, in reality, military women served in combat for decades wearing protective equipment that was made for men. As a result, many female veterans experience chronic musculoskeletal injuries.

Female veterans also experience a higher rate of breast cancer at a younger age than nonveteran women, and the rate is even higher for black female veterans. Female veterans are almost two times more likely to die by suicide than women who have never served. And the list goes on.

While the VA is best equipped to understand and address these complex health challenges, 75% of female veterans do not use VA health care, and are also less likely to apply for benefits. Culture, lack of recognition, the experience of multiple forms of trauma, and isolation of female veterans play significant roles. According to a recent study, at least 1 in 4 female veterans experiences harassment or denigration of service status at VA facilities. Yet, female veterans who use VA inpatient or outpatient mental health services have overwhelmingly positive outcomes, including significantly reducing the risk of suicide.

The first step in helping more women access VA care is to address the culture they are faced with when they attempt to access that care. The VA must make aggressive strides to stamp out the widespread sexual harassment of female veterans and female employees at their facilities. Veteran Service Organizations should also consider how they can promote an inclusive culture that respects and supports female veterans and their partners. In Congress, we will be working hand-in-hand with female veterans to address these inequities through legislation and aggressive oversight.

No veteran should experience barriers to health care because of his or her gender, sexual orientation or race. From Deborah Sampson to the women serving today, every single servicemember deserves the recognition and unfettered access to the benefits they have earned and deserve.

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