Corey Foster spent her Army career caring for wounded troops, both as a flight medic in the Iraq War and at Walter Reed hospital, so she looked forward to one of the most celebrated benefits of military service — health care for life from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Then she walked through the door at a VA medical center in Temple, Texas.
“You felt like you were a piece of meat,” said Foster, 34, who retired as a sergeant. “Standing in line at the registration desk, I was getting comments from the male patients behind me, looking me up and down. It was a major source of discomfort.”
The treatment was the same at the Veterans Affairs medical center in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where Foster moved after living in Texas. She gave up and opted for her husband’s insurance outside the department. “They need to make the facilities not feel like an old soldier’s home,” Foster said.
An entrenched, sexist culture at many veterans hospitals is driving away female veterans and lags far behind the gains women have made in the military in recent years, veterans and lawmakers of both parties say. Although the Department of Veterans Affairs has scrambled to adjust to the rising population of female veterans and has made progress — hiring more women’s health care providers, fixing privacy problems in the exam rooms and expanding service to rural areas — sexual harassment at department facilities remains a major problem.
Women say it is galling that such a demeaning atmosphere persists, especially for the roughly 30 percent of female veterans who have reported being harassed or assaulted while serving in the military. That number includes Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., who spoke at a congressional hearing last week about being raped by a superior officer while serving in the Air Force.
“Changing the culture has been an ongoing, overarching goal,” said Dr. Patricia Hayes, chief consultant for Women’s Health Services at the VA.
This year, the House Veterans Affairs Committee will establish a task force to address women’s health care, and harassment issues are expected to be front and center. “This is about the physical transformation of our facilities,” said Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., the new chairman of the committee.