Honor Military Families with Adequate Health Care

"I've had friends who showed up at their local VA [Veterans' Affairs] with children and were either chastised by their health care provider, or even refused services completely," Kayla Williams, author of Love My Rifle More Than You, testified last week in front of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs -- or at least the fraction of the committee that showed up for a roundtable titled "The Growing Needs of Women Veterans: Is the VA Ready?"

The answer is clearly no. The VA's lack of readiness is not limited to its oft-discussed failure to provide adequate treatment for sexual harassment and assault survivors. The agency also falls far short when it comes to providing veterans' families – both women's and men's -- with readily accessible, quality health care.

Currently, there is no federal mandate that VA centers provide any kind of on-site child care or child-care vouchers, leaving many veterans unable even to make their appointments. Many VA centers don't even have changing tables in the bathrooms, forcing mothers and fathers to squat on the waiting-room floors to change their babies' diapers. If you ask most women vets about finding a private space for nursing within a VA facility, they'll laugh out loud. Further, the children themselves are not even considered eligible for treatment in VA Centers, even though their parents have served this country.

It suddenly makes a lot of sense that Memorial Day is sandwiched between Mother's and Father's Day. It seems that they are all underappreciated and unsupported in this hypocritical country that claims to be so proud of its military and "family values."

The VA seems to operate as if all of its patients are young, childless, and male -- a conceit which, while never really true (historically, vets have often been fathers), was more acceptable in a bygone era when caregiving was considered women's work. We live in a different world. Not only are young men more involved in their family's lives, and therefore more likely to bring them to the VA Centers, but there are more women veterans as well. In fact, women currently represent 15 percent of active-duty military, 20 percent of new recruits, and 17 percent of reservists.

The huge influx of young veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars now flooding VA facilities across the nation have more than PTSD and unprecedented brain injury -- they've got babies. There are currently 535,000 women in the military between the ages of 18 and 39 -- a range considered prime for childbearing. Many of our newest veterans are new fathers, born at a time when being a primary caregiver is not only more socially acceptable, but also an economic necessity for many American families.

During the House roundtable, Dr. Patricia M. Hayes of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs expressed solidarity with women veterans' advocate groups about the need for on-site childcare, suggesting that she was moving forward with some pilot programs. But Dawn Halfaker, of the advisory committee for OEF/OIF Soldiers and Families, had the smoking gun: letters on official Department of Veterans Affairs letterhead that clearly stated "there is no legal authority to provide these services" and that the department "did not support a two year pilot for childcare." The roundtable conveniently ended before Hayes had her turn to respond.

Another issue that Williams brought to light is that of veterans who are struggling to treat their own mental and physical health needs, while also serving as caregivers for their combat-scarred partners. She knows from which she speaks. Her husband returned from Iraq with shrapnel in his head, an injury that took years of nightmarish Army hospital visits to recover from. Unsurprisingly, the dual veteran-caregiver role is one that disproportionately affects women; 51 percent of women veterans are married to male veterans, while just eight percent of male veterans are married to women who have served.

The Women Veterans Heath Care Improvement Bill, led by Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, is currently pending. It would require a pilot program for VA-provided childcare, in addition to so many other critical developments for veteran families: required care for newborn children of veterans receiving maternity care; retreats for returning women veterans, which include curriculum on reintegrating into families and communities; and increased and higher quality mental health care. The chair of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, Rep. Bob Filner, attested that the committee members would do their best to push the bill through in June.

The Service Women's Action Network and other advocacy groups don't think the bill goes far enough, and -- among other requests -- they asked the committee to require that the VA immediately address the shortage of female physicians and mental-health care providers, implement a program to train, educate, and certify all VA staff in federal Equal Opportunity regulations and Military Sexual Trauma, and conduct a comprehensive study on the extent to which women veterans' claims are denied, for both physical and psychological conditions.

But of course the biggest wish of all of these organizations is for the military to initiate a broader cultural shift. As long as 1950s-era masculinity -- tough, emotionless, and invulnerable -- is the face of the military, veterans will continue to suffer from a VA that doesn't expect them to nurture children or care for their loved ones.

Of course, the VA's inability to meet families' needs is a microcosm of the larger problems plaguing our still family-unfriendly workplace and health-care policies. On this Memorial Day, our veterans deserve more than patriotic slogans and brief celebrations; they deserve immediate, accessible, quality health care for themselves and their families.