Women veterans don't get equal treatment at the VA, so Congress is launching a task force

Photo credit U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Nicholas Brown

During Andrea Goldstein's time as a Naval officer, she was frequently the only woman in the room "where life and death decisions were made."

But the teammates who were supposed to guard her life in turn "sexually harassed and belittled" her because of her gender.

Since leaving the military, she says it's not gotten any better. Goldstein now faces barriers to care at the Department of Veterans Affairs because male veterans and VA healthcare workers "questioned my right to VA healthcare."

Now Goldstein will serve as the senior policy advisor for a new team in Congress, the Women Veterans Task Force, whose purpose it will be to knock down the obstacles to care and equality women veterans face. 

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The work of the task force will focus on culture, healthcare, economic opportunity and benefits access for women veterans, Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., chairwoman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee's subpanel on health, said at a Thursday press conference. 

Women veterans must be "visibly recognized for their service to the nation" and the VA must have an "essential cultural transformation ... and foster an environment that is safe and respectful" especially after reports of "widespread sexual harassment of women veterans and employees at VA facilities," Brownley said. 

The VA is the best-equipped place for women veterans to solve the complex issues they face, but "it can be the actual source of their trauma," she said. 

VA spokeswoman Susan Carter said the VA is working to make women veterans feel more welcome. 

"VA recognizes that all veterans should feel safe and at home in VA facilities, and that at times women veterans have experienced harassment by others," Carter said in a statement. "That’s why VA has launched a campaign of education, reporting and accountability to end harassment of veterans and to help staff and veterans intervene if harassment occurs."

The number of women receiving care from the VA has tripled since 2000, Carter said. 

Carter said the VA has created posters, videos and training and rolled out the program at all facilities.

"We want veterans to be aware that VA is taking action so that all veterans can engage fully in their own health care," the statement read. 

"Women often go from being the most visible service members on active duty ... to some of the most invisible as veterans," said Mackenzie Wolf, a Marine Corps veteran and representative for the American Legion.

The task force will focus specifically on serving women veterans "and transforming existing systems with an eye on equity," she said, including transition assistance, poverty, homelessness, GI Bill access and use and more. 

Women veterans are less likely to apply for veteran benefits and have higher denial rates than their male counterparts, Brownley said.

"We need to keep drilling down on why this happens and what needs to be done about it," she said. 

House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., said the task force is the first step in understanding and addressing the unique challenges of women veterans.

"We can begin to shed light on the issues the more than 2 million U.S. women veterans face and prepare the VA for the future," Takano said. 

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Ranking committee member Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., explained during his time in service he did not serve alongside women, but he knows many more women serve now and the VA must adapt to the changing demographics. 

"The VA is not known for its speed of change," he said. "The VA has to change as the demographics of veterans change."

Brownley said the task force will aim to produce at least one larger, comprehensive bill to address inequities for women veterans and she expects it to be a bipartisan effort and make it to the president's desk. The bill is planned to be named for Deborah Sampson, a hero of the American Revolution who disguised herself as a man to join the Patriot forces. 

Brownley said the Department of Defense will be at the table for legislative discussions.

"It is abundantly clear it is the culture within the military that carries over to the culture in the VA," she said. "That needs to change. We've got to work hand in hand." 

But all of the work will be focused on clearing the path for women veterans to access the VA care they've earned, she said. 

"We see you, we thank you for your selfless service," Brownley said. "And we are dedicated to serving you in return." 

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