Good morning, everyone, and welcome to this critically important forum—important not only because we are dealing with change that’s overdue, but also because time is not on our side. We are late, and the surge in women Veterans has begun and will continue for the foreseeable future.
Our discussions today will focus on women Veterans and the issues facing them, but we should acknowledge that, in the background to our deliberations, runs a parallel discussion about the changing nature of warfare. It is this parallel discussion about women warriors in a constantly evolving operational battle space that adds complexity to any discussion about the issues facing women Veterans. On the one hand, there are women’s issues, and on the other, there are women’s warrior issues. They are not quite the same thing.
Over time, changes in war-fighting doctrine dictate changes about where women serve within the battle space and the kinds of missions they are handed. These doctrinal changes will continue to have an impact on women. So, it becomes our responsibility to anticipate those changes and prepare for women Veterans who will have shaped and lived those changes.
Deployed in 2004 as a member of the Army Reserve, Sergeant Lynn Wagner left her career as a biochemist at the University of Washington to serve in Iraq. When her convoy came under heavy enemy fire outside Baghdad, the driver in the lead truck was seriously wounded. At great risk to her own safety, she maneuvered her vehicle to provide cover and covering fire, pulled the driver from his truck, and carried him—a man twice her weight—to safety, while under mortar attack. For her heroism and leadership under fire, she was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor.
A World War II Army Nurse put it this way: “Let the generations know that women in uniform guaranteed their freedom. That our resolve was just as great as the brave men who stood among us and, with victory, our hearts were just as full and beat just as fast—that the tears fell just as hard for those we left behind.”
Those inspiring words are appropriately etched into the glass skylight tablets of the exhibit gallery in this memorial.
Today, women represent nearly eight percent of the overall Veteran population—and nearly six percent of all Veterans, who use our health care services. We expect that number to double within ten years. In 2009 alone, VA experienced a 20 percent jump in women using our health care services—compared to a total 17 percent increase over the previous six years. We are VA—our goal is 100 percent accessibility to Veterans who need us. We must anticipate and address the challenges faced by women.
We are beginning to take modest steps in that direction. All of VBA’s regional offices now have a women Veterans coordinator to provide benefits assistance. All 144 of our service providing medical centers have full-time women Veterans program managers. Earlier this month, we announced that VA is simplifying the process by which Veterans with PTSD are able to access health care and receive benefits—an important step for both women and men suffering the invisible wounds of battle.
We acknowledge the debilitating effects of military sexual trauma—MST—and we are committed to providing world-class health care and services for those who suffer from its effects.
We will continue to advance research that improves the care for and well-being of women Veterans, especially in the areas of access to quality care and the health impacts of military service. In the four-year period from 2004-2008, VA researchers published more articles on women Veterans health than during the prior 26 years combined. Our research conference on women Veterans’ issues earlier this month spanned key topics that included the impacts of trauma and combat exposure among women; women Veterans’ preferences and health care needs; gender differences in health care for deployed military personnel and women Veterans; and post deployment care focused on trauma, mental health, and reintegration.
Last year, I pledged to end Veteran homelessness in five years. Women comprise roughly five percent of the estimated 107,000 Veterans, who are homeless each night. Of the 30,000 homeless Veterans and families, who will be living in permanent housing provided by the HUD-VASH program (HUD-VA supportive housing), roughly 11percent will be women Veterans. Nearly 4,000 children of Veterans have already been kept with their parents as a result of this program.
Outreach is a priority. Women Veterans are now more visible in VA publications, marketing materials, posters, and messages. As part of its “Her Story” initiative, our Center for Women Veterans publishes stories about them on the center’s Web site every week.
Thank you for your advocacy on behalf of our women Veterans. We need your insights and your energy to help prepare the way for where we need to be 25 years from now. This forum should establish a critical agenda for an annual dialogue on women, not only to update us on where we are in our women’s programs, but more importantly, to provide us the necessary vectors for women’s programs in the years ahead. Help us outreach to all women Veterans—we must increase access and dialogue with every woman who has served her country in uniform. Let that dialogue begin today. Thank you.