VA extends reach to female veterans


Army medic Denise Berry is getting checked out at the Veteran's Administration Medical Center in Palo Alto. She's driven from Santa Cruz and says the care is first-rate and ultra convenient.

"They're also great at putting the visits next to each other," said Berry, "Since I'm not from here, I can just come here and knock 'em out back-to-back."

Berry, who has complete a tour in Iraq, is one of the 16 percent of women veterans who now make use of VA facilities. The percentage is an increase from 10 percent a few years ago. The growth is partially due to a growing number of women in uniform, but also because the VA has worked at changing its image toward females.

"They felt that the VA facilities were not really friendly towards women veterans," said VA physician Samina Iqbal, MD.

There's a good reason for that image: In the past, many VA centers didn't have separate changing rooms for women vets. The centers also lacked doctors who could conduct breast and pelvic exams.

However, that's changed. Since 2008, the VA has trained more than a thousand doctors to treat and care for women in a range of areas from primary care, OB/GYN, breast care and rheumotological to name a few of the services offered in the privacy and the safety of the women's health clinic.

Some clinics even offer alternative care, like acupuncture, for women vets. Fifty percent of women vets who serve in Iraq and Afghanistan return with musculoskeletal problems -- neck, back, hip or joint pains.

"This relates to the fact that they are wearing heavy equipment," said Iqbal. "The backpacks they wear weigh 40 to 45 pounds. The rucksack weighs another 30 to 40 pounds."

The clinics may care to active duty service members, but it doesn't have the rugged military feel.

"It feels very civilian here," Berry said. "I come here, and feel like I'm just another civilian going to a doctor's visit."

Currently, the VA is phoning female veterans and making sure they know their eligibility for VA benefits. The VA hopes to eventually reach every female veteran.

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