By Fariba Pajooh and Duke Omara
Synolve Netterville was idealistic, motivated and ready to serve her country. Joining the military at 24-years-old fulfilled a carefully thought-out plan. She had imagined retiring from the US Air Force and looking back proudly at years of service.
All that changed the night she was raped.
She spent most of the last 36 years trying to forget “that strange night” when her world was shattered by the people she was supposed to count on—her comrades-in-arms.
“I buried a lot of it. It made me a very secretive and introverted person. It made me bury things. You don’t really forget everything but you can bury it so deep you might as well have forgotten it,” Netterville said.
After decades of seeking refuge behind the wall of silence she had built, Netterville is one of many female veterans, who say the Veterans Administration has failed to provide them with the same level of care as their male counterparts for mental and physical health issues.
Many of these women say they are increasingly relying on charities and non-profit organizations to raise their voices and provide encouragement to others who often feel neglected by the government’s vast network of veteran services.
Strength in numbers
“A lot of women who come to me don’t consider themselves veterans,” said Arthurine Jones, a former lieutenant colonel in the Army and a board member with the Chicago-based National Women’s Veterans United (NWVU) group which has for the last few years dedicated itself to helping women adjust to life after their service.
“Some of them feel like a veteran is somebody who went and served 20 years in active duty service. All they want to do is forget about it because things happened to them,” said Jones.
The number of women seeking services is still woefully small compared to their male counterparts. Last year, women accounted for only six percent of those utilizing VA services despite making up 15 percent of the active duty and National Guard and Reserves component of the armed forces, according to a 2012 VA report.
For the first time ever, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) placed the VA in 2015 on its biennial list of high risk “agencies and program areas that are high risk due to their vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement, or are most in need of transformation.”
That label reflected what the GAO called “serious and longstanding problems with veterans’ access to care, which were highlighted in a series of congressional hearings in the spring and summer of 2014.”
Many of the problems women face go beyond poor access to care, according to some of those interviewed. They say the VA is heavily skewered towards providing services to males, a claim backed by the nonprofit group, Disabled American Veterans, in a comprehensive 2014 study.
“The vast majority of these deficiencies result from a disregard for the differing needs of women veterans and a focusing on the 80 percent solution for men who dominate in both numbers and public consciousness,” the DAV report said.
The report also noted that one in five women veterans has delayed or gone without needed care in the prior 12 months.
Room for improvement
Despite all this, it’s not all bad news.
After hearing female veterans’ concerns, the VA has instituted nationwide changes that are meant to improve services and increase confidence in its services, said Kayla Williams, the VA’s Director of the Center for Women Veterans in Washington D.C.
“They have trained over 3000 designated women health providers through women’s national health many residency programs, they have expanded the types of services available to women veterans, now to include seven days of newborn baby care,” Williams said.
Maternity care coordinators are also on hand to “ensure that pregnant women veterans know about all the services available to them and to coordinate all their care so it can be handled much more smoothly than it might have been in the past,” she added.
Williams said many other services given by the agency continue to show the high quality of care that women patients could expect during their visits.
“In 2016, 88 percent of VA patients got cervical cancer screenings on time versus only about 75 percent of patients in the private sector and only 60 percent of Medicaid patients. And when it comes to breast cancer screening, 86 percent of VA patients get mammograms when recommended compared to only around 70 percent of those in the private sector,” said Williams.
Williams acknowledged the sense among many women that a disparity exists between their treatment and that of their male counterparts.
This has led the agency to launch a “culture change campaign” to ensure “that all VA staff and providers and male veterans, some of whom served in an era when very few women were in the military, know women are veterans and we deserve to be treated with equal respect and dignity, and honor the service that we’ve given to our country and to try and challenge some of the fundamental misconceptions that people have,” said Williams, herself an Army veteran.
Female veterans welcome the changes.
“There is room for improvement and there is still a long way to go. Acknowledging that there are female vets, and that there are programs specially for them like the women’s clinic is going a long way, and that is a great advancement,” said Hattie Tyson, a former Army sergeant from Maxton, NC., who is also a volunteer at several veterans’ groups including the DAV.
The VA is happy to have collaborative relationships with these organizations, said Williams.
“The sea of goodwill, the vast support that exists in larger communities for our veterans and these types of organizations are one way communities can come together to support veterans and I am thrilled to have strong relationships with several veterans’ organizations,” she said.
The VA is also currently in the middle of a 11-week campaign with a non-profit group called Women Veterans Interactive to raise awareness about the state of women veterans, she added.
Many of the volunteers for female veteran organizations have had to overcome the same misgivings towards the VA as those they are trying to help. This gives them a unique understanding of the hard road ahead for those coming into the VA system for the first time.
“When I came back (from deployment), I was broken and didn’t want to accept it. I was confused and although I am a very positive, outgoing and independent person, I didn’t look for help and I did not go,” said Jones. “I was trying to forget and get my life back together.”
After a coincidental meeting with the president of NWVU, she decided to get the help she knew she needed and soon started identifying herself as a veteran.
She recalls breaking down at one of the group’s meetings and feeling completely overwhelmed.
“For the first time in months since my deployment, I broke down. I don’t know what came over me but I broke. And it was loud and it was painful,” Jones recalled.
After two tours in Iraq, she now considers herself one of the lucky ones for getting the help she needed when she did.
Like Jones, Tyson recalls receiving a less than warm welcome from male counterparts on an initial visit to a VA hospital. She said some of the men were shocked to see a woman patient there.
“When I first went there in 1991 they didn’t have a women’s unit at the VA. That was baffling to me. I was on the floor and a man came down the elevator and looked at me, like, what is this female doing here? This hospital is for men,” said Tyson, who served for five years in the military.
The stigma such treatment brings accounts for many of the obstacles women feel they have to overcome before they seek help, Jones believes.
She said many women don’t ask for help because there is a lingering feeling that their issues will not be adequately addressed. Although some of these attitudes have changed over the years, she added, many women feel as if they would be put in a corner as a separate category or not be taken seriously.
For women like Netterville, talk alone is not enough to help them come to terms with the sexual trauma they suffered.
“‘Thank you for your service’ is something everybody has learnt to say,” she said referring to how the words have almost become a catchphrase.
Changing such attitudes is a challenge for the VA advocacy groups.
“The majority of people don’t even understand. Unless you have a really close and loved one or you are special, nine out of ten people don’t care. And most people regard the military as just a job that you chose,” said Netterville who served for four years.
Over the years she has learnt that everything in life has a price tag and battles are not won unless they are fought.
A proud patriot, whose t-shirt, arm band, necklace and purse display the American flag, she leaned back in her chair as she told her story.
“Whether it’s war, trying to get the best job, or your benefits, it’s always a battle,” she said. “And if you understand that, you get stronger. It taught me you have to stand up for what you want, expect a fight and find the strength to fight it.”