A recent draft report from the Women Veterans Task Force (WVTF) of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) outlines the challenges of addressing disability among women veterans. The need to deal with issues unique to women vets arose because of significant changes in the culture generally and the military specifically.
Woman Vets on the Increase
One obvious change is the number of women in the military. In 1950, only two percent of all military personnel were women. Today, 14 percent of active duty military and 18 percent of National Guard and Reserves are female. Women are no longer relegated to support roles, but take part in active combat. As a result, they suffer injuries that are similar to those experienced by male soldiers.
As a result of growing number of women who choose to enter the military, the number of female veterans has also increased. In fact, women make up the fastest growing group of veterans - eight percent of veterans, or 1.8 million, were women. It is estimated that by 2020, 10.7 percent of vets will be female.
Female Veterans Have Different Needs
The report not only recognizes the growth in the number of woman veterans, but also pinpoints the different needs of this cohort. Overall, female veterans have higher service-connected disabilities than their male counterparts. In 2009, for example, 26 percent of female vets and 19 percent of male vets had disability ratings greater than 50 percent.
In addition to generally having higher disability ratings, disabled female vets also have higher incidences of certain types of disabilities, including Military Sexual Trauma (MST). One in five female vets who use the VA for health care is identified as suffering from MST as a result of rape, harassment or assault. This can lead to additional problems, such as depression, substance abuse and PTSD. Women vets suffering from MST are four times more likely to have PTSD and six times more likely to have multiple mental health conditions.
Women Still Unaware of VA Benefits
Although the VA has determined that women veterans with disabilities or diseases related to military service, such as MST, are eligible for VA benefits, the draft report revealed that women vets are less likely to be aware of the services available to them, such as disability benefits and health care. In 2009, for example, 30 percent of female veterans were found to be unaware that they were eligible for VA benefits and services. This is an improvement over a 1985 survey that revealed that 57 percent of women vets were unaware of VA benefits. However, the report characterized the 30 percent figure as "unacceptably high."
The findings of the report will be the basis of a renewed effort to improve VA services to female veterans.