United States Department of Veterans Affairs
 Health Care
Health Care Breakout Sessions Lead to Breakthroughs for Women Veterans
Interior view of small counseling room, three women sitting, one standing, in conversation.
Inside a Mobile Vet Center trailer, Clelia Taylor(L), VHA Womens Program Manager, Tomah VA (VISN 12) speaks with three women veterans of Wisconsin's 32 IBCT who returned in January 2010 to Fort McCoy.

It was 'Wisconsin Day' for the 32nd Brigade of the Wisconsin National Guard, a special event during demobilization where returning service members learned about resources for education, employment, health care, and benefits as they transitioned back into civilian life after serving in Iraq.

A soldier — a woman —asked about resources for military sexual trauma (MST) in a mixed-gender group. A male soldier in the crowd started making innuendos.

When Jeff Unger, Wisconsin Day Director and Transition Assistance Advisor, was notified of the incident moments later, he took immediate action.

"We have got to arrest this right now and right here. We cannot allow this to go on," Unger said. He called Clelia Taylor, Women Veterans Program Manger at the Tomah, WI, VA Medical Center. "I need you here tomorrow and every day after," Unger told her. He said they had to find a way for women to privately address their needs, away from the mixed-gender audience.

Call in the Troops

Taylor called in her own brigade, starting with Gail Gunter-Hunt, Women Veterans Program Manager at Madison VA Medical Center, Major Paula Gerwing, Substance Abuse/Dual Diagnosis Admission Coordinator for Tomah VA's Mental Health Service, Christine Dittmer, Readjustment Counseling Therapist at the Springfield, IL, Vet Center, and Michele Pawlowsky, Women's Health Nurse at Madison VA Medical Center.

They quickly created a plan and less than 24 hours later, Wisconsin Day had on its roster separate breakout sessions specifically for women soldiers to learn about and discuss VA health care benefits in a non-threatening environment.

"A lot of women will leave demobilization and reintegrate back into their lives without a hitch. But for others, especially those who were harassed or traumatized, it may not be as easy," said Taylor. "We tell them it's like carrying around baggage — the longer you carry your problems with you, the more they're going to weigh on you. The VA has trained professionals available to work through this with you, so you can successfully rebuild the life you had before military service."

The women-only briefings covered VA comprehensive primary health care services, including gender-specific services such as birth control, sexual health, maternity benefits, and menopause management, topics that normally wouldn't have been addressed in depth in a mixed-gender group.

Lieutenant Colonel Leah Moore, one of the women in the 32nd Brigade, said at past demobilizations, "There wasn't anything targeted toward women specifically. This one was far more proactive. I never thought of the VA as a general health care provider before, but the VA has broadened its scope, especially for women. The breakout sessions were really tailored to the individual soldier."

In addition to comprehensive primary care and gynecologists at many VA facilities, women's health clinics offer preventive care screening, Pap smears, and mammograms. "You can truly get all your care at the VA if you choose," said Pawlowsky.

MST care is included in VA health care services. Pawlowsky stressed that even if a woman didn't report MST when it occurred, she should still come into the VA for treatment.

"These women had no idea there was a separate women's program out there," said Unger. "We gave them every contact, every name, and every number for VHA staff, patient education, medical care, mental health, and special services that are female gender-specific in medical centers. They were extremely pleased."

Discovering Trends, Shaping Women's Health Care

After the briefing, the team encouraged women to stay and ask questions or make comments. "We learned a tremendous amount about their experiences and what their concerns were," said Taylor. "Many women had chronic pelvic infections and urinary tract infections because of sanitary conditions during deployment. Their concern as women now back in the civilian world is, 'How is my deployment going to impact my fertility? What other problems am I going to have?'"

Taylor said there is another benefit to enrolling in VA health care: the VA can discover national health trends through its relationship with, and health care records of, women Veterans. This will help the VA offer appropriate training to staff.

"One of the most important things we need to hear is whether you're satisfied with our services," said Taylor. "We want to establish a dialogue with women Veterans to shape a health care program that's second to none."

After the program, Unger and the other staff members received by an overwhelmingly positive response from the women Veterans in attendance.

"I have been hugged and kissed. I have shaken hands and shared tears with our ladies because they have been so thrilled with what we were able to introduce to them, that we were able to take care of their health care needs without any stress or anxiety," said Unger.

By Stephanie Strauss, VA Staff Writer