This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: For the disabled women veterans profiled in the documentary "Service: When Women Come Marching Home,” the transition from active duty to civilian life holds special challenges -- for them, for their families, for their communities and for the Veterans Administration, which is responsible for providing their long-term care.
The film, which will be screened Tuesday at the Missouri History Museum, relates the stories of America’s women warriors battling to rebuild their lives after surviving horrific traumas. Each experience is dramatic and compelling: a former Army MP who lost both of her legs after her humvee hit three landmines in Afghanistan in 2005; a soldier who struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan -- and ended up living on the streets after her homecoming. Several of the women -- from various service branches -- share their experiences with military sexual trauma (MST).
Filmmakers Marcia Rock and Patricia Lee Stotter follow individual stories, culminating in the group meeting with congressional leaders in Washington, D.C. to advocate for the rights of women veterans.
The film also calls attention to the lag in health-care programs and services for women veterans who, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, now comprise about 10 percent of veterans. (About 15 percent of active duty military are women.)
According to the VA:
- Women make up nearly 11.6 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
- The average age of women veterans was 48 years in 2009, compared to 63 for male vets.
- PTSD, hypertension and depressions were the top diagnostic categories for women treated by the Veterans Health Administration in 2009 and 2010.
Among the more sobering statistics:
- There are nearly 10,500 homeless Iraq and Afghanistan veterans -- and about 13 percent of them are women.
- About 1 in 5 women seen by the VA respond "yes" when screened for military sexual trauma. MST is defined by the VA as sexual assault or repeated, threatening acts of sexual harassment.
'We can’t silo anymore'
A panel discussion after the screening will include Eve Holzemer, women veterans program manager for the St. Louis VA Medical Center and veteran Terri Odom, who advocates for MST victims and also volunteers as an adviser with the VA. Odom and Holzemer are involved in efforts to expand the VA’s health-care program for women veterans in the St. Louis area.
According to Holzemer, 50,000 veterans -- 7 percent of them women -- were enrolled in 2010 in the VA Heartland Network that covers Missouri, Kansas and parts of Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky and Arkansas. By the start of 2013, the enrolled population had grown to 120,000 veterans, with 35,000 of them women.
"In 1992, the VA was still handing out vouchers to female veterans. They were not even treating female vets but giving them vouchers for outside care. That’s a huge leap to where we are now,’’ Odom said.
Holzemer, a nurse practitioner who joined the VA last year to head the women’s program, said that one of her first actions was to hire an ob/gyn physician so that more procedures could be done in-house for women instead of referring them to civilian health-care facilities.
Other efforts include streamlining mammography testing so that patients who need additional images and ultrasounds can have them done on the same day, Holzemer said. Eventually, female veterans will be able to get well-woman exams at any of the VA’s outpatient clinics in the area.
Holzemer said it is important for the VA to develop a more holistic approach toward treatment, including coordinating medical care and social services.
"We can’t silo things anymore. It’s time for us to step out of that box and not silo our folks and to really individualize that care,’’ she said.
Holzemer said the St. Louis VA is reworking its military sexual trauma program and will eventually have trained staff at each of its outpatient clinics to work with survivors.
"I think that will really help our men and our women,’’ she said. “MST is a huge issue within the military. And it’s not just an issue for women; men can be raped as well.’’