The first female to lead the DAV talks about her priorities. She also discusses how her daughter lasted two weeks after joining the Army while her career spanned 21 years.
- Since taking over, what have you identified as your top priorities?
My priorities as DAV’s national commander include keeping the spotlight on the unique, gender-specific needs of women veterans and closing the health care gap for this growing population. Progress is being made but there is much more to be done. DAV’s research illustrates women veterans have their own challenges as they transition from service and need support in the areas of specialized health care, employment, finance and housing. About one-third of VA medical centers do not have a gynecologist on staff and DAV’s research indicates women veterans are more prone to becoming homeless. Our government should keep the promises it made to women veterans by integrating holistic, evidence-based programs for women veterans’ health, rehabilitation and transition-related issues.Another critical area of focus is government support for caregivers of all generations. Currently, an arbitrary date on the calendar dictates that caregivers of post 9/11 veterans are eligible for support, but the generations of caregivers of wounded, ill or injured veterans prior to 9/11 are not. This is an injustice. We know that keeping veterans at home increases their quality of life and is far less costly to taxpayers than placing them in a nursing or assisted living facility.
- What do you believe is the DAV’s role in support of veterans with PTSD?
I’m very proud of DAV’s role in bringing PTSD into the national conversation. We were instrumental in getting the condition—previously referred to as soldier’s heart, shellshock and battle fatigue—formally recognized by the American Psychiatric Association and we founded the treatment and support program the VA uses today. Our role will be continuing to ensure veterans suffering from PTSD have access to the medical care they need and have earned. This illness is nothing new, but as we continue talking about it we can discover new ways to treat it and work to end the stigma surrounding it. There is a misconception among many as to how PTSD impacts veterans’ lives, largely because of what they see in movies or television. But the fact is that PTSD is not limited to the veteran community and most people who are treated for PTSD overcome it and lead healthy, productive lives.
- What are your feelings about female soldiers and the care they need?
Women veterans are the largest growing demographic in the armed forces. Today, they make up about 20 percent of new recruits and roughly 300,000 post-9/11 era women veterans have served honorably in Iraq or Afghanistan. The number of women veterans will actually rise to about 11 percent of the total veteran population by 2020. It’s important to note that brave, patriotic women have served in every American conflict since the American Revolution. But as their role continues to evolve and more military career opportunities become available to them, our country will no doubt see an increase in women veterans who need specialized care. Military service inevitably changes a person and our nation’s women veterans are accepting the same risks and potential for life-changing injuries as their brothers-in-arms.
- Your personal story is pretty remarkable. Particularly your family history. How does your personal history impact how you work?
I’m very proud of my family’s military heritage. My dad was a Buffalo Soldier and I know he is looking down on us from above and is proud of the support DAV offers the military and veteran community. I’m proud of my service. I was part of a graves registration unit during the Persian Gulf War. So, I’ve seen some of the worst of war. But in my fellow veterans, I’ve felt a sense of unity and camaraderie that is empowering. I’ve seen first hand how PTSD can devastate a person’s life. But I’ve also seen how a community of support can create healing and rebuild lives. All that influences the passion I have for my work and DAV’s mission.
- What made you join the Army?
My father was a soldier, but the call to service came later in life for me. My daughter was in high school at the time and she told me that people were going to laugh at me because of my age. I told her to join with me. She lasted two weeks and I lasted 21 years. There were even proportionately fewer women in the military when I joined than there are today. But, I never felt that being a woman was a liability for me in the Army. That’s one of the things that makes the military special and unique. As long as you can meet the same standards and contribute to the team, you are accepted and embraced. I didn’t join the military to be treated differently because of my gender or race—I joined to be a part of a team. I got what I was after. I was part of something bigger than myself.
- As someone who has publicly discussed having PTSD, what do you think is most important in treatment or diagnosis?
I’m not a mental health professional, but I do have a lot of personal experience with this issue. Veterans are fortunate in that they share many common experiences – though the causes, symptoms and triggers of PTSD vary tremendously. What DAV found after the Vietnam War, when we initiated the forerunners to Vet Centers, is that treatment that involves others who share similar experiences can be extremely helpful. No one wants to feel alone – and PTSD can be extremely isolating. But creating a sense of community and bringing people together can be extremely restorative.
- As a female veteran, do you think soldiers like yourself get the care you need?
I believe a great deal of progress has been made, but DAV won’t rest until women veterans across the country have access to high-quality, gender specific care they need and have earned. In 2014, DAV commissioned a comprehensive study of the unique issues facing women veterans and has endorsed 27 specific recommendations to the government to address these concerns—some of these recommendations have seen action, others have been slow to progress. DAV will continue to be a voice for our women veterans on Capitol Hill and through VA to further laws and policies that better address their unique needs and help them make a more successful transition to civilian life.
- Do you think sufficient progress is being done to care for disabled veterans?
Properly caring for ill or injured veterans is going to require reforming the VA health care system, but also strengthening it. We are at the edge of that fight right now in Washington. Veterans have absolutely earned the right to a system designed for them. The long-term strategy that we, the wider VSO community, VA, leaders in Congress and an independent commission have agreed upon would transform the present system into an integrated health care system that combines the strengths of VA with the best community care providers available, all with the VA acting as the coordinator and primary care provider. We believe this is the best solution to ensure we make progress for the care of veterans who were changed by military service—but now it’s time to move from talk to action and pass legislation that will enable this transformation to get underway.
- Many people talk about the VA, how does the DAV work with the VA to help veterans?DAV works very closely with the VA in our daily advocacy for veterans. Our primary mission is to help veterans get their benefits. To do that, we work in VA facilities and closely with their ratings staff to ensure veterans get the benefits they are promised. We’re a major stakeholder, and we have a voice in every aspect of how the Department operates. It’s a partnership. We don’t always agree, but we know the VA is the best hope we have to honor the sacrifices of veterans through care and benefits. So, we consider VA our partners. The most visible collaboration in that partnership is the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic and the National Veterans TEE (Training, Exposure and Experience) Tournament. We work with VA to make those events possible and we’re proud of both programs.
- At PTSDJournal, our motto is All Wounds Are Not Visible. How does a veteran with an invisible wound get help?
When I was a soldier, I learned right away that you never had to face a challenge or an obstacle alone. We were taught from day one to always have a battle buddy. Those bonds of friendship and camaraderie don’t vanish when we no longer wear the uniform. I think it’s important to know the veteran doesn’t have to tackle any wound or life changing circumstance, invisible or otherwise, alone. DAV is here to be your battle buddy and our services are available at no cost to veterans or their families. You don’t have to be a member for us to help you. A good place to start is our website at dav.org to locate one of our professional benefits advocates, find employment resources, get help to and from VA medical appointments and find ways to volunteer within the veteran community in your area.