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I-TEAM: National study exposes serious gaps in care for female veterans

Published: Mar. 29, 2021 at 7:07 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - A national report recently exposed serious gaps for female veterans. Our I-Team went to work to see what that means for the 7,000 women here at home that rely on our local VA.

“It was a joke the men played on me. A machine knocked me into a wall and injured my spinal cord.”

Navy veteran and local mother Angel Couch still struggles with that back injury from her time serving on base in Key West, Florida during the Vietnam War.

With her emotional support dog at her side, she tells me she still struggles with the invisible wounds, too.

“It was a very bad time for us because of the stations... the rapes,” Angel said.

She says many women she served with decades ago, suffered as well.

“I’m the only one left, I’m the only one alive. PTSD... it just took them,” she told us.

Angel says she’s been suicidal herself and through the anxiety and the pain…she’s been willing to share her story with those willing to listen to her truth.

“When I got out of the service, I had to testify, and they sent me to Washington DC. I testified about what happened to me when I was in the navy. Three hours...” She said.

According to a new report by Disabled American Veterans, Angel is one of 265,000 women who served during the Vietnam War.

Another 41,000 females served in the first Gulf War.

And Post 9/11 – more than 280,000 women signed up to protect our country.

The I-Team analyzed the data and found women are the fastest growing segment of the military making up 20 percent of new recruits.

Despite that enormous growth, researchers found “women veterans face a homecoming that is remarkably different than their male counterparts.”

Concluding, “We identified serious gaps in every aspect of the programs that serve women, including health care, employment, finance, housing, social issues and the eradication of sexual assault.”

It’s something Angel tells our I-Team she’s seen firsthand for decades.

“Being a female, they really don’t talk much about that, you know, everything is about the men. It’s the men, the men, the men as a female veteran, no,” Angel said. “They will give you some medication and tell you to take Tylenol, get rest, maybe you’re going through menopause and then you say ‘No, I know my body something is not right.’”

Our I-Team went to the Charlie Norwood VA and found – they are listening.

“Several years back we recognized the need to really focus on the special need and circumstances women veterans bring to the forefront.” Dr. Terri Lockhart said.

Dr. Lockhart has been with the Augusta VA as a doctor for 28 years.

“Here at Charlie Norwood VA medical center, our women veterans have been very vocal about needing or wanting mammogram services as a result of June 2020 we opened our own mammogram unit.”

The I-Team found in less than a year, that the new mammography unit has now scanned nearly 1800 veterans and detected seven cases of breast cancer. Now, there are plans to establish a certified Breast Health Center of Excellence at Charlie Norwood VA.

Dr. Lockhart works directly on overseeing improved care for female veterans through new outreach programs.

“One of the unfortunate things we hear, and experience is military sexual trauma play a part in the whole health of the individual,” Lockhart explained.

They’ve added new screening protocols to find those assault cases and also domestic violence cases.

Another issue in Augusta, she says, is homelessness for women who have served.

Disabled Veterans of America found post 9/11 females have a harder time finding employment than males. Now, they have social workers out in Augusta at homeless shelters looking for these veterans … to get them the aid they need and deserve.

“I think there is a lot we can continue to learn as we continue to do our screenings and communicate with our patients, one veteran at a time, one encounter at a time,” Lockhart said. “My hope in 5-10 years is we have been able to successfully close the gap.”

Women like Angel now make up 14 percent of the patient population at the Augusta VA.

“I actually had to seek outside help, but I do still have my VA doctors, too,” she said.

And hopefully, soon 100 percent of the VA patients can feel they get 100 percent equal care.

Dr. Lockhart says the new facility they want to open is called The Skip Project and the goal is for it to be a standalone facility to provide the full spectrum from primary care to female services, to mental health.

They really want this to be a regional center of excellence geared just to women and it will be right here in Augusta.

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