Written by Peggy McCarthy
A female Marine Corps veteran, who was in desperate need of mental health services, didn’t know she could get help from the VA until 17 years after she left the service.
Trina Parker, of West Haven, said many women like her, who were in the military in peace time think that VA services are just for veterans of war, and they often don’t even see themselves as soldiers.
Another woman veteran, Juliet Taylor, who served in Iraq, said many female vets don’t take advantage of health services at the VA in West Haven because they connect it with “old men” who are Vietnam War veterans. They envision the women’s health center there as a “dungeon” since it’s in a basement. As a result, many don’t get any health care. “While the services are great at the VA, it’s not a place where we go. There’s a stigma attached to the VA. I didn’t care what they had there. I didn’t want to go,” she said.
The two women spoke at the VA Connecticut Homeless Veteran Summit attended by service providers and veterans. The conference, at the VA’s Errera Community Care Center in West Haven, focused on services for female veterans.
Out of more than 15,000 women veterans in the state, 2,752 go to the VA for health care, said Jane Sarja, women’s program manager for VA Connecticut. In an interview, she admitted that it’s a challenge to attract more women vets partly because of misconceptions that “the VA doesn’t know how to take care of women.” She said a separate women’s health center opened at the West Haven VA in 1996 in a basement to give women privacy. The center will move to an upper floor next year, and will still be separated from men’s services, she said. “It will provide the same privacy and good care,” she said.
“We’ve made great strides, but we have a long way to go,” she said. VA health services are provided at the main health facilities in West Haven and Newington and in outpatient clinics in New London, Danbury, Stamford, Waterbury, Windham and Winsted.
Parker, the Marine Corps vet, served from 1982 to 1986. Afterward, she suffered from anxiety, alcoholism and PTSD, which she attributed to “unwanted sexual advances” while in the service. She couldn’t hold a job and was homeless at times, living with friends. In 2003, she applied for welfare and was sent to the state Dept. of Labor for employment assistance.
The staff member happened to be a female veteran who referred her to Errera, where she received mental health care. “If I had the opportunity of mental health treatment 17 years before, it would have saved me 17 years of aging with alcohol,” she said. “I didn’t know about the VA. Nobody was out there letting you know,” she added.
Parker has worked at Errera as a peer specialist for five years, the longest she’s held a job. She has been sober for eight years. In an interview, she said she is starting a new job in late November in Bedford, MA, helping women veterans. She’s passionate about reaching out to women from her peacetime era who, she said, are “falling through the cracks.”
But, Taylor, the Iraq War veteran, said many women veterans, regardless of their era, aren’t getting health care because they refuse to go to the VA. She said she finally went for dental care five and a half years after she left the Army. She had been rejected by two clinics for insurance reasons, then referred to a facility that only treated male veterans.
She said she received such good care at the VA, she has since brought other women vets there for help. One hadn’t had her prescription eyeglasses checked for 15 years.
She urged VA officials to “get out into the community” to reach out to women veterans. She suggested community colleges because many women veterans, herself included, attend the schools because it’s paid for under the federal GI Bill, and there’s often money left to pay for housing.
Others at the conference said they had never thought of community colleges as resources for reaching veterans and now plan to tap them. They also suggested contacting domestic violence centers which may serve female veterans, using personal contact instead of relying on events to spread the word, and changing language in publicity so it refers to people who served in the military, so there is no confusion about wartime vs peacetime service and the definition of the word “veteran.”
Sarja, the VA women’s program manager, said the VA is “committed to working very hard” to convince women to take advantage of its services. She said that although West Haven is the only VA facility in the state with a separate space for treating women, there are doctors in each VA location that are “specially trained in women’s health.”
“We know that tens of thousands of women will be coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. They are not going away. The numbers of women vets are rising,” she said.
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