…And At This Point, I Don’t See It Stopping Anytime Soon

Courtesy of amandaw I bring you this stellar article that once again rubs in my face how brilliantly miserable the VA is scratching the surface of realizing what is wrong with they way they even see women veterans. If you read along carefully you can even see the lightly sugar-coated condescension artfully woven in TIME writer Laura Fitzpatrick’s story. It really is a piece of work, from the dismissive way she re-counts the testimony of the “presumed” treatment of a victim survivor of sexual assault at the hands of a medical professional (because they NEVER do THAT) down to the detailed description of the very girlie attire of the staff at the impressively mostly women-run facility in Palo Alto. I crave to read the way a man’s shoes click-clack on a hospital hall’s floors in such a manner. But it is a very cliche description etched in the halls of descriptive-writing history, INORITE, so who am I to argue with the laws of good writing. I am, after all, only an amateur.

The news isn’t that the VA is failing women veterans. I’ve known that for quite some time. Really, I have. I have encountered some of the treatment described to some degrees first-hand:

I remember having to hunt around for a toilet in an ill-fitting paper gown at my own exit screening, past several other open, occupied exam rooms. I was the only woman there. They had no sanitary napkin to offer me and it was an embarrassing scene trying to find a place where I could insert a tampon. I was fighting back tears when I finally found a (presumably) unisex bathroom.

So My Dear Friend Ms. Fitzpatrick’s dismissal of Anuradha Bhagwati’s story, the one she gave as testimony before the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is ill-received. It isn’t too far-fetched for me to imagine the way she recounts “the ham-handed manner in which a male gynecologist, upon being told by a patient that she had been sexually assaulted, left the exam room and — presumably to beckon a female staff member — yelled down the hall, ‘We’ve got another one!'”. I can easily see the inept professionals at the inadequate facilities just stumbling over how to even grasp a way to provide basic courtesy to a patient who isn’t like them. And failing. Miserably.

The news here is that they seem to have no idea how to fix it, and no set, immediate time line in mind for seeing progress. Sure, Secretary of the VA, Eric K. Shinseki recently, at a forum at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, has said that he hopes to have the VA ready to serve 100% of veterans in 25 years, but what is going to happen to this generation of women veterans who are already being ignored? To the women veterans of the wars past who have been fighting for help all along already?

Because their concerns are already being swept aside. You can already see as things like their urinary-tract issues being categorized as simple “gender differences”, because women react to the desert differently. Sure, possibly. I’ve seen this intimated a few times. People looking to explain away womanly behavior in high stress situations. Oh! They didn’t want to stop the convoy! Well, why is that? Maybe because we know that women are far more likely to be killed by their fellow servicemembers than by combat in combat zones that they learned defense mechanisms, as confessed to by Col. Janis Karpinski. Women tended to drink less water, as little as they thought they could get away with, to avoid using latrines or having to stop roadside alone with men out of fear of sexual assault. And it killed some of them. If you remember, though, Karpinski was even dismissed as a woman scorned because of the Abu Ghraib scandal, anyhow, so we can’t win for losing. She was just ratting out her old boss because she got in trouble.

Some of it is true, though. Most of the VA’s 144 hospitals do not have the proper facilities to even offer privacy to non-men patients, let alone provide gynecological care, or as I mentioned above, pads. The TIME article notes a hospital in Salt Lake City which announced that it delivered its first baby this past October (the article mentions that its average patient is 78 and male), but the day after the little girl’s arrival they didn’t know how much she weighed (I cringe to think how much more they couldn’t provide) because they didn’t even have an infant scale.

Women veterans are spiking in numbers. They, funnily enough, are not the same as men. That means they are not the same as the average patient, such as that the Salt Lake City hospital are used to dealing with, and their health care with be different. Even if you line up the matching parts, the treatment for heart disease and blood pressure, to my lay knowledge, is not the same. The numbers have been growing since The Great War, and surged after we had the need to call the next one World War II. It took until 1988 for the VA to start providing even limited care to women veterans.

Today, women veterans in need of help from the VA are of an average age far younger than the average male veteran (for obvious reasons) and have different needs. They are at least twice as likely than civilian women to be homeless (with only 8 facilities in all the U.S. available to help homeless women veterans with children). They are likely to be mothers when they are. Many of them returning from combat zones — yes, combat zones, why do you ask? — are coming home to families and are more likely than their male counterparts to get divorced following combat connected tours. They are really damned likely to get asked if that is their husband’s or boyfriend’s shirt they are wearing, or asked for their husband’s social by a thoughtless agent on the phone. They are the forgotten in war. Doubly so if they served in a branch of the military that isn’t on the forefront of the public’s mind as “really the military” (as slave2tehtink has said, Aircraft carriers tend to not be zipped around by civilians, yo). Extra-specially so if you had a thinkin’ job, like “nuke” or “spook”, and your Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or Military Sexual Trauma (MST) didn’t happen “In Country” (Iraq or Afghanistan), the only sanctioned places where these things can occur, you know.

It’s frustrating as hell. And while I don’t believe that the VA is intentionally forgetting about us, I don’t believe that they are doing everything that they can to make sure that it gets better faster.

And honestly, I don’t think writers like Ms. Fitzpatrick are helping. But maybe I am jaded and have been at this for too long. But the VA needs an overhaul, stat. Pretty words from the Secretary of the VA and promises that it will be better in a couple of decades just aren’t good enough.

3 Comments

  1. I share and sympathize with your frustration, but when I read the article, I came away with a very different perception.

    For instance, where do you see Fitzgerald dismissing Bhagwati’s testimony? The verbs she uses are “recalled” and “recounted,” neither of which imply that Bhagwati did not tell the truth. Within the story, the verbs are “left” and “yelled,” without an “allegedly” in sight, and the “presumably” is within the story itself and not dismissing Bhagwati’s testimony (that is, it only says that he didn’t say why he stepped outside but it was probably X, and doesn’t call into question his incredibly offensive behavior).

    I did notice the stilettos clicking, a common and somewhat annoying authorial practice, but upon reading your post, it sounded like you were saying the original included the phrase “very girlie attire,” which it does not.

    I really think the Fitzgerald piece was making most of the same arguments you were, very clearly and carefully, and was not at all dismissive of women’s experiences.

  2. “the average patient”?

    There shouldn’t be an “average patient”!

    There could be an average male patient, an average female patient, an average flu patient… etc etc, disease, race, age, gender…

    But average patient means male, white, and generally healthy except for this one thing. It also reminds me of BMI – which is based on white men and is how many decades old?

  3. Well, c., I suppose that you and I might read things differently and come away with different conclusions. I wouldn’t deign to presume mine is the only right interpretation, but after spending a few years within the system of the military and being a veteran navigating the VA, Fitzgerald’s piece feels more of the same ol’ crap to me. Lots of spoonfeeding the same promises of “Well, they are trying! See the nice handbook they passed out this year!” with very little change. Sure, you could probably find a lock on a unisex bathroom door now and pads provided now, but it is still a fight to get things therapy groups for PTSD from MST where you aren’t thrown in with a dude who beats his wife. And no one can figure out why this is an issue. All because of phrases like “women have earned their stripes”, in a world where that should be a given for the same service. What you read as supportive recounts, I read as people glossing over, featuring it as part of a sideshow.

    I didn’t say that phrase was specifically used, it seems you missed my hyperbole. I seems I have a problem laying it on a bit thick at times.

    I guess I view things through one lens, and you might view them through another. And while I find her references to overly describing the women in the hospitals as othering, you may not. I am not asking you to see things exactly the way I do. But that doesn’t erase my experiences, my perceptions, and the barrage of articles just like these, which dismiss mine and other people whose experiences might be like mine, maybe more severe. I offer only one view. I appreciate you sharing yours. I agree on one point, the action of the male medical “professional” was far more appalling that the reporting of the recounting of the event, and I hurt to say that this behaviour is all too common. Yet, we tend to not be believed when we tell these tales.