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Montrose VA: Female Veterans Hard to Reach

MONTROSE, N.Y. – More women than ever are entering, and leaving, the military. Experts at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Montrose said the increasing number of female veterans exiting the military poses multiple challenges, including changing society’s stereotypes of who is a soldier, and convincing women to fit healthcare into already packed schedules.

“Their veteran status is not their top priority,” said Lauren Incontrera. She is program manager for the Woman Veteran Program and a 10-year veteran of the Air Force, only leaving after having her fourth child. “I’m speaking from experience. If you ask me what I am, I’m a mother, I’m divorced, I’m a nurse, I’m a this, I’m a that, and then if I’m going to get a discount then, oh, I’m a veteran.”

Incontrera sent some 1,500 invitations to female veterans in the Hudson Valley, as of 3 p.m. however, attendance was still light. About 4,400 female veterans live in the Hudson Valley, only about one-third are enrolled in Veterans Affairs (VA) health services. The VA Hudson Valley currently serves about 25,000 veterans total.

According to the latest report on the VA by the Government Accountability Office, the number of female veterans has doubled since 1990, from 4 percent of all veterans to 8 percent, or 1.8 million, in December 2011.

The fair ran from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., Incontrera was hoping to catch women as they come home from work or as they pick up children from daycare. Of the about 20 vendors at the fair, most tables provided information on services offered on campus, including well-woman exams, mental health services and nutritional and dietary services.

Incontrera said for the image of the soldier to change to include women, and to bring female veterans into the VA, the first step is as simple as “thank them, recognize their service."

Omayra Bedward, a human resources specialist at the VA, is a veteran of Iraq and still serves in the Army Reserves.

“I think that people don’t see us as veterans when we come home, because they do see a male figure,” she said about society’s view of women returning home from serving abroad.

“I’ve been in situations where I’ve been with five, six other soldiers and I’m the only one wearing a combat patch, and everyone goes and says thank you to them for serving overseas,” she said, about the varying reactions to male and female veterans.

Even in homeless outreach, said Incontrera, the VA teaches outreach specialists to ask females if “they have served” in the military, not if they are veterans, since many do not consider themselves veterans. Female veteran homelessness has nearly doubled since 2006, to over 3,300 in 2010, according to the same GAO report.

The biggest issue going forward, says Marine veteran Kimberly Nilsen, is for the military to inform people of their rights when they leave.

“I think when you’re getting out of the military they need to do a better job of letting you know what the VA does, and that it’s there for you. I think that was the biggest thing, because they didn’t tell me you need to go register with the VA, you have health care available to you,” she said. Nilsen recently registered with the VA, she has been out of the service for five years.


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