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VA Medical Center Gears Up To Treat Women Veterans

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Aired 8/18/11

The VA Medical Center in La Jolla is going through a cultural sea change as more and more women veterans come through their doors for health care.

Women play a growing role in the military. They now make up 14 percent of those on active duty. Inevitably, that means more veterans will be women -- already they make up almost 8 percent of the veteran population. The VA Medical Center in San Diego is going though a cultural shift to adapt to its new patients.

The corridors of the VA Medical center in La Jolla are always bustling, but Jennifer Roberts, the VA’s first full-time program manager for women veterans, says you’ll see a lot more women in them nowadays.

Jennifer Roberts, Program Manager for Women Veterans at the VA Medical Center in La Jolla, August 2011
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Above: Jennifer Roberts, Program Manager for Women Veterans at the VA Medical Center in La Jolla, August 2011

“When you see a woman walking in the hall, “ Roberts said, “you don’t just assume that they’re a care giver, they could be the veteran themselves.”

Roberts said the number of female veterans coming to the VA Medical Center for health care has increased 25 percent in the last two years.

One of them is Kate Raggazino who served as a Marine for 12 years and became a staff sergeant. She said when she left the corps some years ago, she had to fight to get the VA to recognize her health care needs.

“They just weren’t equipped,“ Raggazino said. “They weren’t prepared for the amount of people that were coming home, let alone a female. They just didn’t know how to deal with it. Women have specific needs that have to be met."

The VA has started special training for doctors, says Jennifer Roberts, physicians who have spent years seeing almost exclusively men.

“For example,”she said, “they may not be as experienced at doing pelvic exams or breast exams.“

The VA is offering mini residency programs in several states focused on women’s health, but so far, no male doctors from the VA Medical Center in San Diego have volunteered to go. Dr. Kali Hose has attended one in New Mexico. She says she sees plenty of bad backs and ruined knees, but the biggest thing that stuck out in her mind from the training was the need for better therapy for the psychological traumas women suffer.

“Used to be that you would have a group for depression and it would be a bunch of male patients and one female patient who had attend,” she said, “and it wasn’t very comfortable for them.”

Hose said women may not have been as exposed to the risk of such severe physical injury as men, because of their assignments, although many have suffered from TBI or traumatic brain injury as a result of being in a vehicle hit by an ied. And, Hose said, women have suffered other traumatic psychological wounds that are in some ways more difficult to deal with. That’s because many of them suffered what is being called MST: Military Sexual Trauma.

I talked to Danielle Jackson who served for 6 years and was one of the only women in her unit in Iraq in the first Desert Storm. I asked her if, in her experience, many women veterans suffer from military sexual trauma.

Her response was immediate, “Pretty much everybody I know.” She gathered herself together with a deep breath as she recalled that time. “ It was chronic and you know, I would go and report it and it was horrific. because you were this person that turned on the family… and the other guy had a wife and you’ve destroyed his family, so I just was told to shut up.”

Jackson is 43, and only now is she beginning to face the issues she has been carrying for 2 decades, thanks to the help from her VA Doctor.

“ The whole policy, to me, has changed,” she said, “ Now at least they are acknowledging the fact that it’s a problem.”

Veteran Kate Raggazino says the VA is a huge bureaucracy, moving slowly to meet women’s needs.

Veteran Kate Raggazino and her dog Daisy May. Daisy May helps Raggazino remember when she needs to take her medications. August 2011
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Above: Veteran Kate Raggazino and her dog Daisy May. Daisy May helps Raggazino remember when she needs to take her medications. August 2011

“And now I’ve seen pamphlets,” she said, “ I’ve seen call centers, I’ve seen transition advocates, programs that are geared towards women. And now, within the last year, I’ve seen MST.

MST is one of the biggest un-dealt with problems among female vets. There’s now a VA Women’s Clinic in Mission Valley, which Danielle Jackson has been to. But like thousands of other women veterans, she is still hesitating to take the help for her psychological wounds.

“I haven’t had the courage!” she admitted, ”I walked in and there weren’t a lot of people in there, and I talked to the woman behind the counter and that was exactly what she said: she said that we have so many obstacles to overcome to have the courage to walk in because of what we experienced before if we did tell anybody. So we ‘re hoping that the newer kids, this next generation, the women who are serving now….can actually show us how to be brave enough to walk in and talk about it. “

It’s a massive backlog of pain. The VA is now beginning to gear up for the growing influx of young women leaving military service, and the ones who left years ago, who are discovering these new battles to face.

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