More females than ever are joining the ranks of our nation’s armed forces. As of April 2017, 15% of active duty military personnel were women—a 4% increase from 1990.
Despite this trend, services to support female veterans at home are still woefully inadequate. Suicide statistics for female veterans are harrowing. And Veterans Affairs (VA) facilities are underequipped to treat the unique mental and physical needs of female veterans.
This Veterans Day is a time to reflect on how we’re failing female veterans. As more women risk the ultimate sacrifice to defend our country, the U.S. must do better at supporting these brave women once they return home.
Suicide rates among female veterans are surging. More than 7,000 veterans take their own lives each year, which adds up to nearly 20 lives lost per day. Female veterans account for a disproportionate number of these tragedies. According to the latest VA statistics, male veterans were 19% more likely to take their own lives than their civilian counterparts. For women, that rate is an astonishing 250% higher.
These rising suicide numbers are one tragic result of inadequate mental health services. Many veterans, both men and women, experience mental health issues upon returning from service. Post-traumatic stress disorder—which impacts an estimated 20% of all veterans—is the number one complaint among women treated at VA facilities. Depression and hypertension rank closely behind.
The likelihood of experiencing sexual trauma while serving exacerbates these problems for women. According to the latest VA screenings, one of every 100 males experienced military sexual trauma. For women, that number is one in four.
Unfortunately, VA facilities are unable to offer the care that women require. Female veterans in Virginia and North Carolina, for example, can expect to wait an average of 26 days to see a mental health professional. What’s more, many VA facilities don’t offer services unique to women’s needs—like prenatal care or mammograms.
Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin has taken steps to boost access to these necessary services for female veterans. In May, for example, the secretary axed burdensome VA guidelines that make it difficult for women to receive mammograms. He also has started publishing VA wait times online to increase transparency and accountability.
Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst, a combat veteran herself, has long been an advocate of bolstering veterans’ services. Just last year, Ernst led the Female Veteran Suicide Prevention Act through Congress. Her bill—which was signed by President Obama on July 1, 2016—requires the VA to analyze and establish “effective mental health and suicide prevention programs for our female veterans.”
Still, as rising suicide rates would indicate, these efforts are far from enough. The last place our female veterans should feel left behind is at home.
This Veterans Day is a time to remember the brave men and women who fought valiantly to protect our freedoms. In doing so, we must ask ourselves if we’re doing enough to honor these heroes. As more females answer the call of service, so too must our government.
Jacy Gomez, a former congressional staffer for Sen. Chuck Grassley, is an associate at Keybridge Communications. The opinions expressed above are entirely her own.