Edgewood resident Terry Jackson is proud of her 31 years of military service in the Maryland Army National Guard, including a yearlong deployment to Iraq three years ago. However, Jackson, 52 and a Bronze Star recipient, sometimes feels like a second-class veteran.
For the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), "the focus is traditionally on the men," said Jackson, a master sergeant and human resources professional who retired last year as an active Guard reservist. "You've got plenty of women who serve, but we are often in the background."
When it comes to transitioning to civilian life or dealing with health care, housing, education, child care, military-related sexual trauma and other issues, veterans officials and advocates say the VA has been out of touch with the needs of the nation's 1.8 million female veterans.
That's a big reason why AARP Maryland, A Step Forward Inc. and the National Center for Health Behavioral Change are sponsoring the 2011 Women Veterans Conference Sept. 16 at Morgan State University in Baltimore.
AARP's involvement in the conference grew out of a similar event last year that drew mostly male veterans, said Jennifer Holz, a program specialist at AARP Maryland. She said this year's event will connect female veterans and their families or caregivers to resources and information concerning benefits the veterans are entitled to.
Maryland is home to more than 49,000 female veterans, the 12th highest among states according to the VA. Nearly 22,000 are 50 or older. Many of the concerns AARP focuses on — financial security, health and wellness, and older workers' issues — are central concerns for female veterans.
"A veteran is a veteran. However, women veterans need and deserve a unique approach," said Edward Chow Jr., secretary of the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs, who will speak at the event. "Sometimes they have maladies that we don't even know about."
Jackson, for example, had severe anemia, triggered by fibroid cysts, during her year in Iraq. But her pre-deployment physical exam did not detect her condition.
For veterans, "it's much easier to get men assistance than women," said Lela Campbell, executive director of A Step Forward, a Baltimore treatment facility for homeless men and women, including veterans.
"It gets complicated" for a system that is used to dealing predominantly with men, said Cynthia Mason-Posey, director of the outreach and advocacy program for the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA, she said, is trying to better serve female veterans. This includes recognizing that post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms are different in women than men and ensuring that all VA medical facilities provide obstetric and gynecological care.
Recent legislation approved compensation for female veterans dealing with breast cancer, extended military sexual trauma counseling to active personnel and created a business training resource program for female veterans.
Still, some feel progress has been slow. And many female veterans don't know they are eligible for benefits, including health care, mental health care, child care, housing and job training assistance, life insurance, burial benefits, and dependent and survivor benefits, Campbell said.
The conference is from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and will include workshops, health screenings, vendors and entertainment; the fee is $25. To register, call 410-383-4119 or visit http://mvwc2011.eventbrite.com. For more information about female veterans' benefits, contact the VA Center for Women Veterans at va.gov/womenvet or call 1-800-827-1000. Visit mdva.state.md.us to find out about Maryland-specific benefits.
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Christopher J. Gearon is a writer living in Derwood, Md.