WASHINGTON — About 1.8 million women have served in the U.S. military, and with 245,000 female soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen who have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, it's estimated that within a decade, women will make up 16 percent of all veterans.
Yet until recently, some health clinics for veterans did not have separate bathrooms for women. Some doctors who treat returning service members haven't kept up with medical advances on issues from sexual trauma to prosthetics to menopause. Some Veterans Affairs computers still spit out data mistaking female veterans for wives of men who fought.
The Department of Veterans Affairs is turning its resources to women as the government braces for an increasing demand for services from female veterans.
On Wednesday, clinicians, benefits experts, VA leaders and veterans from across the country discussed the department's stepped-up efforts and the need to do more for women.
"We are late, and the surge in women veterans has begun and will continue," VA Secretary Eric Shinseki told the crowd of 175 gathered at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. "Time is not on our side."
The retired four-star general and former Army chief of staff has made increasing services for women a top priority, securing $217 million in gender-specific programs for the next fiscal year, a 21 percent increase from 2009. The increased investment is aimed at providing better care and more privacy and security for female patients.
The insurgency style of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan, where women driving in convoys can experience the same traumas as if they were directly in combat, has upped the ante for the veterans agency, Shinseki said.
He also acknowledged the "debilitating effects" of sexual assaults and harassment of women in the military — as many as 21 percent of women who seek VA care report sexual trauma — and said his agency is "committed to providing world-class health care and services" for victims.