By Congresswoman Julia Brownley

Originally published in The Hill 

On Veterans Day, we recognize the courageous sacrifice of those who chose to fight on behalf of our nation, and honor the legacy of those we lost.

As a member of Congress, I think often about a story that a U.S. Marine Corps veteran in my district told me. The veteran and their spouse had just finished loading their car with groceries when a stranger approached. The well-meaning individual saw their U.S. Marine Corps bumper sticker and wanted to thank the veteran. So the stranger walked straight up to the husband, shook his hand, and thanked him for his service. He pointed to his wife and said: “She’s the Marine.”

This anecdote illustrates the distinct challenges faced by the growing number of women veterans in our country, who are too often forgotten. So, while we honor all who served — male and female alike — I encourage you to also take a moment to think about the unique experience of women veterans this year.

In the U.S. military, women are serving shoulder to shoulder with men. Female service members make up 15 percent of active-duty military and 19 percent of the National Guard and Reserves. Women veterans also represent more than 2 million of our 22 million veterans, a 30 percent increase since 2000. However, with this dramatically changing demographic comes new challenges we must address.

One example is mental health care. Many people have heard the devastating statistic that 20 veterans a day take their own lives, but how that breaks down is less well-known. The suicide rate among male veterans is 19 percent higher when compared to civilian men, which is heartbreaking. However, the suicide rate among women veterans is 250 percent higher than the rate for civilian women. That is a staggering number, and one that we need to address with the urgency it deserves.

In 2016, Congress passed legislation that I authored, requiring the Veterans Affairs Department to analyze the efficacy of suicide prevention programs based on gender. The VA is expected to report back next year on which programs will be most effective for women, and for men, and this information will be essential for tackling the suicide epidemic that takes far too many lives.

It can also be harder for women veterans to build the peer support networks that are key to helping them transition back to civilian life, because women are still a small subset of the total veterans population. More must be done to connect female veterans with each other. VA data has shown that women who participated in retreats with other women veterans have a decrease in stress and symptoms of PTSD, as well as better overall psychological well-being. With bipartisan support, the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee passed my legislation to expand this program, and I hope we can get it signed into law.

The VA must also focus on the unique physical health-care needs of women veterans. Too many VA health-care facilities do not offer essential gender-specific services, like mammograms, pap smears and prenatal care. This must change, and together with my colleagues in the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, we are working on legislation to do just that.

There are also important policy changes that need to be made that will especially benefit female veterans, but that can make a difference for all veterans. For example, veterans who are primary caretakers of children need access to child care when they have health-care appointments at the VA. The VA is currently conducting a successful pilot program that makes child care available at some VA medical centers. Earlier this year, the House passed a bill I authored with Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.) to expand this program, and we must get it to the president’s desk.

Congress also must do more to address the problem of veterans’ homelessness, particularly for those with children. That is why Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) and I have introduced a bill to provide more resources for community-based efforts that serve homeless veterans and their children.

Our Veterans Service Organizations are also playing an essential role in both recognizing the service of women and collaborating with Congress to address the unique issues women veterans face. Notably, the American Legion and Disabled American Veterans each elected women as their national commanders for the first time this year. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America also launched the She Who Borne the Battle campaign, an effort to fully recognize the service of, and improve services for, women veterans.

So, as we take time to express our gratitude to all who have served, let us take a moment to make sure we remember and thank women veterans who deserve equal recognition and access to the benefits they’ve earned when they return home.

Brownley represents California’s 26th District and is ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Health Subcommittee.

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