Hillsborough's Commission on the Status of Women wants more collaboration to help female veterans

11/29/11 Janelle Irwin
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Florida has the third highest population of veterans in the country and the percentage of women veterans is growing. Today the Hillsborough County Commission on the Status of Women discussed ways the county can reach out to help those women return to civilian life.

Five percent of female veterans are homeless. That is according to Larri Gerson. She’s the Veteran claims examiner for the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Gerson says the troubles of women veterans are often not discussed, but the statistics show females face many of the same issues as their male counterparts and sometimes more.

“The year 2009, fiscal year 2010, PTSD, hypertension, depression were the top three diagnostic categories for women veterans. And that I got from the VA healthcare administration. About 1 in 5 women seek healthcare at the VA, when they screen for military sexual trauma, they say yes. 1 in 5.”

Sara Romeo is the founder of the Athena House, which is the country’s first gender-sensitive residential program for homeless female veterans. The program is being used as a model across the country. But she says veteran programs, especially those for women, are too reactive.

“This to me is truly the way we need to be going and that is sort of a shift of thinking in Washington. It is a prevention program. We are actually able now to look at families in the community who are at risk, who are facing eviction, who aren’t quite in the shelter yet or under the bridge. So, what they have discovered in Washington and what we’ve all known for many years in the social service industries, prevention is much more effective and much less costly than the alternative.”

But reinventing the wheel when it comes to helping female vets isn’t cheap. Romeo said there are not a lot of programs available to help veterans who are mothers. But Frank Storm from Hillsborough County Veterans Affairs said the economy makes funding new programs difficult.

“With the county’s budgetary restraints I guess would be the appropriate term over the last four years. It is difficult to channel funding to organizations like this. Commissioner Beckner does have an initiative on the table with some funding specifically targeted for veterans. Those specific needs or a direction has not been identified yet. We’re working on that over this next fiscal year. Maybe some opportunities, I don’t know. I don’t want to speak on his behalf. This is his initiative. Our goal is to continuously seek out federal funding because if you think about it, we believe it is the federal responsibility to take care of the veterans when they come back.”

The federal government has stepped in to fund research. Maureen Groer is a professor at the USF School of Nursing. She received money to study female veterans for markers that may put them at risk. Groer started recruiting participants at military outreach events.

“To see if they would be interested in enrolling in our study. I suspected that maybe 10% of the women would be in the study because it involves standing in front of a kiosk for some women almost an hour, taking these various instruments, having a blood sample drawn, being weighed and measured by our student nurses – which none of us like – having a sample of hair because we are now able to measure a stress hormone in hair that gives us a perspective of long-term stress exposure.”

But one of the biggest problems identified during the panel discussion was communication and collaboration. Each speaker agreed that inter-agency cooperation would benefit veterans in the area. Pam Smith-Beatty is the Women Veterans Program Manager at the VA in Tampa. She said if all the various agencies came together they could reach more women.

“I do know that women, it’s difficult to identify themselves as a veteran. I had that problem for many years. I still don’t bring that up when I’m speaking to somebody. To me, my primary roll is wife, mother, daughter and I think ‘oh, veteran, it’s about 6 or 7 down the road’. So, it’s very difficult to actually reach them. Once we get them, we can provide care. And once we get them they generally will come back about 50% of the time. They’ll come back and they’ll stay in our system.”

The Commission on the Status of Women will come up with plans to address these problems with the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners. No deadline for a recommendation was made, but board members said it would be a long process. Chairperson Yvonne Fry told the panel she promises to work toward stronger lines of communication between advocates and the county.

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