At Roseburg VA, growing Women Veterans Program a ‘Paradigm Shift’

Army Veteran Evelyn Coble, the System Redesign Coordinator for the Roseburg VA Health Care System (RVAHCS), served in the Army supply chain for eight years. The Roseburg, Oregon native has been with the VA for 28 years and is an active participant in the Women Veterans Program here. (Official RVAHCS Photo by T. T. Parish/Released)
July 13, 2020

Today, as the female population continues to grow in the military’s ranks, especially those who have served since Sept. 11, there is a resulting wave of women Veterans who are entering the Veterans Health Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs, post-service. Women are the fastest growing population of Veterans, with roughly two million nationwide in 2020, according to VA projections.

With the growing population of women Veterans comes resulting health care challenges unique to them, and the Roseburg VA Health Care System (RVAHCS) is working to stay ahead of the curve. A full complement of providers – a Women’s Health Medical Director; a Women’s Health Program Manager; and a Women Veterans Nurse Navigator – have been added recently specifically to address the health care needs of women Veterans in Southern Oregon.

“At each VA Medical Center nationwide, a Women Veterans Program Manager is designated to assist women Veterans,” said Jessica Burnett, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and the Women Veterans Program Manager here. “The Women’s Veteran Program Manager can help coordinate all the services women may need. Services include primary care, pregnancy care, psychiatric care and sexual abuse counseling, inpatient medical and surgical care, programs for homeless women Veterans, and quality of care issues.”

The Women Veterans Program is a team effort aimed at meeting and improving access to care specific to women Veterans, according to Burnett, who’s daughter also serves in the Navy.

“The Women’s Health Medical Director and the Women Veteran’s Program Manager work collaboratively to provide quality care across our [area]. Women’s Health is responsible for the policy development and implementation of health care for women Veterans. The mission of Women’s Health is to ensure that all women Veterans receive equitable, high-quality and comprehensive health care services in a sensitive and safe environment at all VA facilities.”

In Roseburg, many female employees, from frontline providers to administrative staff, are Veterans themselves. There is a personal investment in actively partnering with the Women Veterans Program providers to help build a solid program for current and future women Veterans.

“Women Veterans are a rising population in the military, thus leading to more and more women Veterans,” said Army Veteran and Eugene, Oregon native Erin Malaythong, a former combat medic who served for seven years. “Because of this, women Veterans need to have the same access to care for preventative and acute medical concerns specific to their gender.”

Approximately 30 percent of all VA employees are Veterans. It makes sense, then, that many women Veterans will choose to continue serving their brothers and sisters who seek services and treatment at the VA, said Malaythong, a Registered Nurse at the Eugene VA Clinic.

“I was missing the camaraderie that the military offers and so I thought, ‘What better way than to immerse myself back into that culture and with those who have served.’ I also wanted to give back, in a sense, to a system that gave so much to me.”

According to VA projections, Oregon hosts some 25,600 women Veterans in 2020, with the number expected to rise during the next decade. In the Roseburg VA’s area, the average Veteran population is as high as twice the national average. The groundwork for addressing the needs of women Veterans well into the future is being laid now, according to Jonathan Barber, a nurse practitioner and the Women’s Health Medical Director here.

“Up until recently, the military had been a male dominated institution,” said Barber, a native of Buffalo, New York. “With the influx of women entering the military and later becoming Veterans, we have to change our old way of thinking and treating patients. Treating women brings a paradigm shift.”

For Barber, who recently assumed the position as program director after eight years with the VA, the Women Veterans Program here gives voice to the small but growing population – women Veterans were, for many years, underserved with health care services specific to their gender. While the program here will continue to grow, Barber points to currently available services – Military Sexual Trauma treatment and counseling, maternity care, mammograms, advanced breast and gynecological care – as a starting point, but not the end goal. As the Women Veterans Program evolves, women Veterans should feel empowered and know their voices are heard.

“It is our job here at the VA to be ready to meet the growing needs of this population,” said Barber. “These women have [placed] their lives on the line for our country, it is our duty to give them great, holistic and comprehensive health care.”

Aside from health care services specific to women Veterans, another challenge is simple recognition. Almost since the founding of the U.S. military in the 1770s, the military was the domain of men. Not until the post-WWII era did women begin serving on a permanent basis – the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act wasn’t signed until 1948 – a relatively short time given the long history of the armed services. While stereotypes of what Veterans look like are changing, some women Veterans still find it hard to gain recognition, according to Sandy Markert, a former Navy corpsmen and current Service Chief of Health Administration Services.

“I have a sticker on my car that says, ‘Navy Veteran,’” said Markert, who was born in Vietnam to an American serviceman and has been with the VA since 2006. “When I am out with my husband, people will come up and thank him for his service. He is not a Veteran.”

But as the “face” of the Veteran population changes, so too will the services available for women Veterans, and for the better, according to Markert.

“When you join the military, you are indoctrinated to the fellowship and true meaning of esprit de corps. To me, serving other Veterans is just an extension of that loyalty and fellowship,” said Markert. “The military has changed and so has our Veteran population. Now more than ever, women Veterans are seeking care, and sometimes that care is unique to our gender. And those services were not always available – I am very glad to see that changing.”

Army Veteran Evelyn Coble echoes that sentiment. Coble, who served for eight years in the Army supply chain, has been with the VA for 28 years and is currently the RVAHCS System Redesign Coordinator. She joined the VA out of college for practical purposes – “I joined because I needed a job,” she said – but stayed for the love of serving the Veteran community. For years, she saw many surprised faces when she told people she is a Veteran. While many still might raise an eyebrow at her Veteran status, the instances are fewer and fewer, she said.

“Years ago, I would have said that women Veterans face issues with acceptance and respect from male service members,” said Coble. “There are still a few surprised faces when I say I am a Veteran, but it is becoming less common.”

And for Coble, who was raised in Roseburg, the VA should be the first choice for health care for all Veterans.

“The VA is ahead of the curve in providing comprehensive, whole-person care to both men and women,” said Coble. “The clinical (and non-clinical) staff understand the specific challenges that women experienced in the military. It was not just a job and those who don’t deal with Veterans every day do not understand.”

Woman Veterans who are interested in receiving care at VA should contact the Women Veterans Program Manager, at 541-440-1000 Ext. 41326 or call 1-855-VAWOMEN (1-855-829-6636).

Point of contact for this release is Tim Parish, Public Affairs Officer, Roseburg VA Health Care System; [email protected]; 541-440-3026.