According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs and the Center for Women Veterans, female veterans make up 2,035,213 of the 21,680,534 United States veterans as of September 30, 2015. While the women veteran population percentage seems small, women veteran issues can be significant.
What is the Center for Women Veterans?
The Center for Women Veterans was first established in November of 1994 when Congress passed Public Law (P.L.) 103-446. The mission of the center is to:
- Provide monitoring and coordination for health care and benefit services from the VA administration for women veterans and the issues that they face.
- Act as an advocate for women veteran issues and increase recognition of the contributions and service achievements that women veterans have accomplished.
- Increase awareness about female veterans, and ensure that women veterans are treated with the respect and dignity that they deserve.
How the 1980 Census Changed Things for Women Veterans
Until 1980 women veterans were a well kept secret, and few realized that women played an important role in military service. The census in 1980 was the first census that asked American women about their veteran status, until this census men were asked about military service and veteran status but women were not.
When the census was completed, more than 1.2 million women had answered yes to the question about serving in the Armed Forces. The census caused Congress to initiate an effort to address women veteran issues and inform women about the veteran services and benefits that they were entitled to because of their military service.
In 1982, Senator Daniel Inouye requested that the General Accounting Office conduct a study on women veteran issues. After the study was complete, the GAO issued a report titled “Actions Needed to Insure that Female Veterans Have Equal Access to VA Benefits.” The study report determined that some of the women veteran issues faced included:
- A lack of equal access for women when it came to VA benefits.
- A lack of complete physical exams in VA facilities for women veterans.
- Failure by VA facilities to provide necessary gynecological care.
- Lack of information provided to inform women of the veteran benefits that they were legally entitled to.
The Louis Harris and Associates Study on Women Veterans Issues
While the GAO study and report was being completed, another study by Louis Harris and Associates was also commissioned by the VA around the same time on the issue of women veterans, titled “Survey of Female Veterans: A Study of the Needs, Attitudes and Experiences of Women Veterans”. This study was eventually published in 1985 in the month of August and it had some surprising facts and statistics about women veteran issues. According to the survey, over half of the female veterans in the USA did not even realize that they were eligible for programs, assistance, and services from the VA.
Another big issue that women veterans faced was the cancer rates experienced, with women seeing twice the rates of cancer as men. The most common cancers that women veterans were diagnosed with were gynecological cancers. Between the census results and the studies on women veteran issues it was very clear that our female veterans were being failed by the system in ways that male veterans were not.
The National Advisory Committee on Women Veterans
As a result of the studies that showed women veteran issues were often overlooked, the National Advisory Committee on Women Veterans was established by Veterans Administration Administrator Harry Walters in April of 1983. After the very first meeting of this committee public law 98-160 was passed by Congress, and the law was titled the Veterans’ Health Care Amendments of 1983.
This new law mandated the VA to create an Advisory Committee on Women Veterans. The committee was charged with assessing the women veteran issues and needs so that female veterans could access programs and services from the VA, and also to make recommendations for changes that would eliminate obstacles to the needs that women veterans face.
Women Veteran Issues Today
Women veteran issues today are different in many ways from the issues that female veterans faced decades ago, but many female veterans still fall through the cracks or find it almost impossible to get the help they need in many cases. Homelessness, substance abuse issues, mental illness and co-occurring disorders are all problems that veterans of both sexes face. Our veterans deserve better, and this includes women veterans as well as men.
While steps have been taken to eliminate obstacles that women veterans face, more still needs to be done to ensure that the programs and services needed by female veterans are easily accessible and available.
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