The rule was clear: Other than the commander’s stenographer, women weren’t allowed on the top floor of the headquarters building.
For Margo Willis, a brand-new soldier in 1973 when the rule at Fort Meade, Md., was in place, the sexism was stinging.
“I will never forget that,” said Willis, who retired 20 from the service years later as a first sergeant and now lives in Tacoma. “Things have changed since then. They’ve changed tremendously.”
And with the United States fighting two wars with no defined front line and an enemy that uses indiscriminate bombing as its chief method of attack, the role of women in the military continues to evolve. But elected officials worry women face barriers to veterans benefits, especially health care.
“Once they get in, they see progress,” Sen. Patty Murray told The News Tribune in a phone interview last week. “But the barriers they face now mean they don’t always get the care they need.”
Murray, a Washington Democrat and a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, introduced legislation aimed to improve access to care for female veterans. Her bill was rolled into the Caregiver and Veterans Omnibus Health bill, which passed unanimously on Nov. 19.
Women now comprise about 15 percent of the military, according to Pentagon statistics. Almost 2 million women are veterans, a number expected to double in the next five years. And even though the military doesn’t allow women in traditional front-line units, the ambiguous nature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan mean more women are being thrust into combat situations than in any previous conflict.
About 23 percent of women using VA health care have reported sexual assault when in the military, and 55 percent have reported sexual harassment, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
And while the overall numbers of homeless veterans have been going down in recent years, the number of female veterans without a place to live is increasing, the VA’s director of homeless veterans programs told the Boston Globe in July.
Murray’s legislation — officially named the Women Veterans Health Care Improvement Act of 2009 – attracted 20 cosponsors and bipartisan support. The House version passed June 23, and the bill now awaits the president’s signature to become law.
The senator said she was well-poised to pick up the issue because women often felt more comfortable talking to another female about the problems they face.
Murray is the only woman on the 15-member Senate committee.
“I’ve always been struck that men speak up about the barriers they face and the problems they face,” she said. “Afterward, the women would come up and whisper to me about the barriers they face. Women shouldn’t have to whisper about it.”
At a grassroots meeting of advocates for women veterans’ issues in Tacoma on Saturday, the issue of the legislation repeatedly surfaced. The event of ¬Ladies Operation Moving Forward attracted about 20 people to a storefront church on South Tacoma Way, where they shared experiences, discussed available benefits, networked and sang hymns.
The event provided speakers an opportunity to share their stories – like Sonorra McMath, who served 20 years in the Army as a petroleum supply specialist with deployments to the first Gulf War, Bosnia and the Iraq war.
She discussed giving pre-deployment presentations to sailors at Naval Base-Kitsap when she started having flashbacks to her own time spent overseas, a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I was in hell,” she said. “I was literally in hell, suffering. And nobody noticed. But when you look at me, you’re looking at the face of PTSD.”
Janis Gbalah, who created Ladies Operation Moving Forward with the aim of creating jobs and eliminating homelessness among female veterans, said the legislation should provide a big boost to women returning from war.
“(Murray is) taking the lead,” said Gbalah, also a captain in the Washington National Guard. “She’s making sure the veterans – especially coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan – are getting what they deserve.”
The Women Veterans Health Care Improvement Act of 2009, which has cleared Congress and is waiting for President Barack Obama’s signature to become law, aims to improve access to care for female veterans. The legislation:
— Authorizes a study of the physical, mental and reproductive health effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on female veterans by an organization independent of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs;
— Requires the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the barriers women face in accessing care, including availability of child care, personal safety and comfort of women;
— Requires the Secretary of the VA to submit to Congress a report verifying full-time women veterans program managers at VA medical centers to ensure health-care needs of female veterans are met.
— Gives the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs the authority to care for newborn children of female veterans who are receiving maternity care from the VA;
— Requires the department to launch a pilot program to provide child care to female veterans who seek mental health services at the VA;
— Requires the VA implement a program to train, educate and certify VA mental health professionals to care for women with sexual trauma;
— Requires the VA begin a pilot program that provides readjustment counseling to female veterans in a group retreat setting; and
— Requires the VA to include women who have recently left the armed forces on its advisory boards.