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As ranks of women veterans grow, VA steps up its health services

Women veterans applaud then-Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates as he delivers the keynote address during the ceremony celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. (Cherie A. Thurlby/Department of Defense)

After serving a tour in Iraq with the Air Force in 2008, Sarah Sell had her first experience using Veterans Affairs services.

“Initially my experience was . . . wading through a system I didn’t understand, and (being) questioned in the hallways because I wasn’t supposed to be there,” she said. “Just being asked, where’s your husband, who are you here to see, who is your sponsor? Well, I’m the sponsor. I’m the veteran.”

In 10 years, Sell’s experience with the VA has changed for the better, she said. And on Friday at the Robert J. Dole VA Medical Center, the VA’s efforts to improve how it serves women veterans were demonstrated with the opening of a $1.5 million 2,700-square-foot health clinic focused on women.

At a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the clinic, located on the second floor of a recently constructed wing of the hospital at 5500 E Kellogg, medical center director Rick Ament acknowledged women feeling “invisible as veterans.

“The VA wants to change that and they want people to understand that the women are a fighting force and they’re part of our history, part of our heritage and part of our future,” he said. “As part of our testament to that commitment, we have committed this square footage and these significant numbers of dollars to make sure that we treat our women veterans appropriately, and as they should be treated for the service they have given us over the years.”

It was a decade ago, when Sell had her first VA experience, that the VA began a “culture change” of serving women veterans, said Laurie Pfeiffer, VA women veteran program manager. That began with creating positions like the one Pfeiffer holds at VA medical centers with a focus on women’s health.

At the outset of that effort, however, women veterans seeking VA health services were coming to the same clinic locations as men.

“They didn’t feel comfortable . . . coming to the VA because you walk in and there’s all males,” Pfeiffer said. “By us recognizing women it allows them to feel more comfortable in sharing about the care they may need.”

More than 200,000 women are on active duty in the armed forces.

Women, Ament said, “are one of the fastest growing subgroups of veterans that are signing up for VA benefits at higher rates than ever before, and higher rates than other subgroups.”

Sell said she has noticed a “drastic improvement” in service at the VA in the past decade. “Just how staff treat veterans, and just the recognition that women are serving in the same capacity as their male counterparts,” said Sell, who continues to serve as a senior master sergeant in the Kansas Air National Guard.

“I would say this is a huge improvement over the VA of yesteryear,” Sell said of the new clinic. “Having this space for women to come in to receive their care . . . just really shows a huge improvement in the direction of understanding and recognizing women’s service in the military.”


© 2018 The Wichita Eagle (Wichita, Kan.)

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