The Health Of Female Veterans

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In the United States, social programs and interventions continue to work toward gender equality and women’s empowerment. Closing these gaps and unlocking the unique potential of women across the U.S. would benefit the country in various ways.

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While gender equality works towards men and women being treated equally, it remains true that gender differences exist and must be studied in the context of health. As stated by the United Nations’ Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (2000); The desegregation of health and socio-economic data according to sex is essential for identifying and remedying inequalities in health. (p. 8) One interesting and important group for which this need for research exists is the United States Military.

The Women’s Army Corps was de-established in 1978, at which time women were integrated into the military with their male counterparts. In 2013, following a growing demand for gender equality and a decrease in the overall number of individuals enlisting, the ban preventing women from serving in combat was lifted. Steps continue to be taken in the various military sectors, working towards equal opportunities of service for both men and women. However female veterans continue to report problems, typical to marginalized groups, such as lack of access to care, low quality care, and poor patient-doctor communication. (Villagran, Ledford, & Canzona, 2015)

Throughout the past two decades in particular, the United States Armed Forces have been deployed in unparalleled frequencies and durations. Following the terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001, service members have faced an increasingly high rate of combat. The context of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have often included multiple deployments and ambiguous missions, in which the violence endured and witnessed is unpredictable. This is notable in predicting future health outcomes for our armed service members, as studies show combat has a significant impact on the physical, social, and psychological health of veterans. (Williston, Taft, & VanHaasteren, 2015)
According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs’ Veteran Population Projection report (2016), the U.S. veteran population will decrease from 20 million to 13.6 million from 2017 to 2037. In this time, they estimate the percentage of male veterans will decrease 2.3% annually, while the percentage of female veterans will continue to increase .7% annually. In the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq women represented approximately 10% of all deployed personnel. (Crum-Cianflone & Jacobson, 2014)

The motivation behind women joining the United States Military appears to be similar to that of men; whether it be an ambition for higher education, a need for a reliable and safe social structure, or a patriotic desire to protect one’s country. (Mankowski et al., 2016) However, the health implications of this service, once U.S. armed services members leave the line of duty, differ by gender and must be studied. One specific example of a health concern found to occur among over 33% of women in the military, compared to 23% of non-veteran women is intimate partner violence (IPV). (Bartlett, Iverson, & Mitchell, 2018) By studying this specific health concern, one can see how action towards basic health rights such as housing and food stability can positively affect various health outcomes.

Gaps in Research:

A literature review of existing research shows that service members, in comparison to civilians, are at a higher risk for various health issues including IPV. Of these service members, those that have faced deployment or combat exposure have been shown to be at an even greater risk. (Crum-Cianflone et al., 2014)
Looking specifically at women in the armed services, millions of dollars have been spent researching their physical and health capabilities, in efforts to argue if and how they should be integrated into the military. (Seelig et al., 2012) However, insufficient research has been done focusing on the health and well-being of women service members during and post deployment. It is important for our government to focus more of their resources and time on this matter.

The gender research that has been done on the armed service population shows that military women are at a higher risk of many health issues in comparison to male members of the armed services. However, the extent, determinants, and repercussions of these health differences still need to be examined. With their growing numbers and changing roles in the United States Military, research focused on women is vital to minimizing the negative effects American women face in their service to our country.

In the past two decades, IPV has been identified as a major social health concern for women in the United States. While the majority of studies looking at armed services members have been focused on men, this research shows early identification of individuals suffering from IPV can dramatically impact the resulting negative short and long term consequences. (Sparrow et al., 2017) However, a major barrier in treating and preventing IPV is that victims are reluctant to disclose their experiences for fear of the potentially damaging repercussions. The research that has been focused on females shows the overall rate of women in the military suffering from IPV may also be skewed by an unusually high percent of women who enter the armed forces having already suffered IPV. (Dichter, Wagner, & True, 2015)

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