Female veterans seek support from VA

Nov 11, 2010

As the nation pauses today to honor veterans for their sacrifice, more women are speaking out about life in the military and getting help from the VA.

The VA reports that 1 in 5 women seen by the Veterans Health Administration say they've experienced military sexual trauma, or abuse. Diann Chatterton Terry is a 27-year Army veteran. She arrived at the VA women's health center in Little Rock using a cane to maneuver around the hallways. Terry says military women also have to fight deep-seated stereotypes.

Retired Army Colonel, Diann Chatterton Terry
Credit Malcolm Glover

"There have been some very strong myths that if you're a female in the Army, or in the military, you must be either homosexual or a very free sexual person - those are totally untrue," says Terry, as she lay her cane across her lap. "Women veterans are going to be truly professionals, because if you're not professional you won't last in the military, so the stereotypes are still there, but they're not as strong as they used to be."

"I just did my best with those who didn't want me to be there and didn't try to take advantage of being a female. I wasn't raised that way."

Terry, a 54-year old Retired Army Colonel, says the military reflects the best and worst of society. While in the army, she was one of the first women in a mechanized infantry brigade back in the late 1970s. She spent most her career in military intelligence at a time when many service women were not widely accepted in those positions.

"I knew what my duty was. I knew what my responsibility was. I had a lot to learn and I listened to those who were truly interested in teaching me," Terry say while reminiscing about her early days in the service. "I just did my best with those who didn't want me to be there and didn't try to take advantage of being a female. I wasn't raised that way."

The VA reports that women make up 11 percent of veterans who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that's nearly 70,000 women. Women, like 33-year old Carol Nivado who was an E-5 in the Army and deployed to Afghanistan in 2005. Nivado talked about her struggles reintegrating into society at a recent women veterans summit in Little Rock.

Carol Nivado
Credit Malcolm Glover

"You know everybody's life back home continued while you were gone for a year so you're trying to readjust," says Nivado while standing at a VA health services booth. "Coming back to civilian life, getting back in there, and getting a regular job it was actually hard for me to adjust and it took me about 6 to 8 months with the support of my family and friends."

Back at the VA Womens Health Clinic, Diann Terry says the medical care female vets receive has improved over the years. Her first run-in with the Veterans Healthcare System happened in the early 80s after she sustained an injury as a young soldier.

"When I was stationed at Fort Riley, we ran 5 miles in 50 minutes about everyday in formation and in combat boots. "I stepped in a divot from a tank and twisted and dislocated my knee cap," Terry says while recalling the painful incident. "I was sent to the VA. At that point, no body could believe I was a veteran and it was just very challenging."

Dawn West-Rosado manages the Women Veterans Program for the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System. She's worked closely with Diann Terry and other vets who've had negative experiences with the VA in the past.

Dawn West-Rosado
Credit Malcolm Glover

"Now there were a lot of reasons they were angry, but there is a common theme. I was unappreciated. My contribution was ignored. I was taken for granted. You don't even realize what my sacrifice was," says Rosado.

Rosado admits that only five percent of all women veterans use VA services, but she says that's starting to change with new programs and personnel that are finally helping them get the mental, physical and emotional help they need. Diann Terry says she's noticed the difference.

"Today, they have a program specifically for women veterans, but it doesn't matter which department you may be sent to," says Terry. "If you have to go to a specialist, they're open to the fact that we have females serving in this military. They've got counselors and other people and it's just so much better."

Terry says with each new decade barriers are broken and society gains a greater understanding of women veterans.

"Am I a female? Yeah. I've got 3 children and 10 grandchildren. I love being a mom and a grandma," Terry says, as she steadies herself on the cane. "I'm a veteran who served my country. I'm not ashamed of that and I appreciate the opportunities that my daughter and my granddaughters now have because veterans, men and women, fight for freedom everyday."

The Retired Army Colonel added her life has always been about service to God, family and country and she wouldn't have it any other way.