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Female veterans feeling underserved by VA

Chris Cassidy | Boston Herald

Women are the fastest growing demographic among veterans, but the hospitals that treat them don’t have enough female doctors, perform enough outreach or offer sufficient counseling and addiction recovery services for them, women vets told the Herald.

“The female veterans I serve feel the VA is not doing enough to support female veterans,” said Roseann Mazzuchelli, the veterans agent in Winthrop and a 21-year Army veteran. “They do a great job, most of the time, at helping out the guys, but we’re all service members.”

Women made up just 6 percent of the veteran population in 2000, but that figure is expected to grow to 16 percent by 2040, according to a Department of Veterans Affairs report earlier this year.

Meanwhile, female veterans described to the Herald a VA culture that’s still woefully behind the times.

When Page Policastro sought alcohol counseling in 2013 at one VA medical center, she was told, despite several inquiries, that there were no female-specific programs.

Years of instinctively keeping her guard up while serving next to men in the military — to avoid showing any weakness — made it “impossible to relax” in a male-dominated program.

“I looked at it as almost a celebrity without the million-dollar paycheck. Everybody knew what I was doing. They knew who I was dating, when I went out on dates, this, that and the third,” Policastro said of working as a woman on C5s in the Air Force from 2003 to 2012, traveling to five different continents.

“That instinct is still there to guard any sort of vulnerability. So in order to say, ‘Hey, I’m having a really rough time, I can’t sleep, I’m having nightmares, I’m crying all the time, I’m drinking all the time’ — that was a weakness and it’s almost survival that I can’t say it in front of a room full of guys.”

Alicia Reddin, the district director of veteran services for Melrose, Wakefield and Saugus, said one female veteran from her area sought treatment at a VA as a military sexual-trauma survivor also battling drugs and alcohol, only to check herself out after being ridiculed by the men in the program. Reddin said she lost track of the veteran a few months later and despite looking for her, still doesn’t know where she is today.

“They don’t market to women. I don’t think they appropriately reach out to women, and I don’t think they meet the needs that women have,” Reddin said.

Other female vets described situations ranging from being assigned a male counselor to discuss military sexual trauma because a female wasn’t available, to being offered few if any choices among female primary care physicians, to long drives for OB/GYN services.

The VA has also struggled to make women aware they can use their services.

Policastro, whose Air Force career ended after she hit her head and suffered a grand mal seizure, said no one ever told her the VA was an option when she was being discharged and figured any information about it may have been buried in an avalanche of paperwork she received at the time.

Mary Thurber, an Army veteran, found out about the VA on her own and never knew it was ever an option for her.

“I think a lot of people when they get off active duty think that the VA is where you go if you’re an old man and you’re alone,” Thurber said.

Female vets said they’re also fighting public perception. One female vet described how she had to produce her military ID at a Dunkin’ Donuts on Veterans’ Day to receive a free coffee and doughnut, while the male veteran she was with received both, no questions asked.

Another vet recalled being told by a shopper that she should move her car because her husband’s military service didn’t qualify her to pull into the military appreciation parking spot at the Merrimack Outlets.

Reddin has begun asking specifically for tampons, women’s shaving cream, shampoo and conditioner when she makes her annual appeal for toiletries and hygiene product donations for her area vets.

“Every year, I’m inundated with Mach3 razors and Old Spice deodorant,” Reddin said.

But the VA, in an emailed response, disagreed with the idea that there’s a disparity between the resources for male and female veterans.

A VA spokeswoman claimed approximately 500,000 female veterans used VA health care services during the 2016 fiscal year.

As of Sept. 30, 2017, some 10,605 mental health-specific occupation employees were employed in the Veterans Health Administration, the VA said. Of those, nearly 54 percent are females, according to the VA.

The VA also claims females have shorter average wait times for medical appointments, including for primary care appointments.

But U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas still believes the VA has been caught off guard by the rise in female vets.

“While efforts have been made to address serious shortcomings in women veterans’ health care,” she said, “it is important that we honor their service by continuing to challenge the VA to better support all those who have served this country.”

Women Veterans