Female veterans criticize gender disparities in VA medical system

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HOUSTON — Navy veteran Tana Plescher said she was shocked by what a doctor told her when she sought care for a panic attack at a Veterans Affairs medical center in Texas.

“You’re a woman; I don’t know what to do with you,” she said he remarked.

The state’s restrictive abortion laws spotlight existing gender disparities within the VA medical system, according to former military women who shared their personal experiences during a listening tour held by Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., chairwoman of the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Health.

The VA does not provide any abortion services, even initial consultations, to women seeking more information about terminating their pregnancies. Unlike the Department of Defense, which provides abortions on military bases in cases of rape, incest or if the mother’s life is at risk, the largest population of female veterans nationwide are left without options in Texas.

“We spent our whole career assimilating into a male world. And that doesn’t end when we get out,” veteran Amber Davila, 37, said outside of the session in Austin, Texas. “Why should we have to assimilate into male health care? We are biologically different.”

Amber Davila.
Amber Davila.Amber Davila

Before the birth of her daughter, Davila said she had multiple miscarriages that required a dilation and curettage procedure to remove abnormal tissue from her uterus. The procedure, and other surgeries used to treat pregnancy complications, may now be illegal under Texas abortion laws.

In 2016, Davila went to a San Antonio VA clinic with severe pain in her stomach and back. Although San Antonio is known as “Military City, USA” for its large concentration of military bases, the clinic at the time had just one gynecologist and a single ultrasound machine, she said.

“The service that I received was naproxen and toughen up,” Davila said, referring to the anti-inflammatory drug. She said a procedure she had to treat her uterine fibroids failed, but instead of taking her concerns seriously, the doctors sent her for a colonoscopy.

“An entirely unnecessary treatment, just wasting time with my pain,” she said.

Fast-forward to this year, and Davila said she had had enough. She sought care from a gynecologist outside of the VA, paying out of pocket for an emergency hysterectomy.

“I suffered for four years with cyclical pain. I have no choice. The only treatment was to remove my uterus, and my cervix,” Davila said, emotionally recounting her experience. “So I have one child, and I don’t have the opportunity to have other children.”

Davila is now chief communications officer for The Pink Berets, an organization founded by veteran Stephanie Gattas to help women who served in the military deal with issues such as sexual trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Lucy Del Gaudio, chief operations officer for the organization, was raped in the early 1990s while in active-duty service, she said.

Lucy Del Gaudio served in the US Army.
Lucy Del Gaudio served in the US Army.US Army

“My elders is a product of my assault,” she told Brownley in a room filled with women of all ages, many of whom recounted similar experiences.

One in four women report being sexually harassed on military bases, and most of them don’t speak up about their experiences in fear of retaliation, according to a 2021 study by the Rand Corp. research organizations.

Del Gaudio said she, and not her abuser, was discharged when she became pregnant and deemed unfit to serve by her superiors. She lost her military benefits, experiencing homelessness while her mental health deteriorated.

“It took a long time to find myself,” she said in an interview. When she finally realized she needed help, Del Gaudio turned to the VA but found their facilities for women inadequate, especially compared to the care men received.

“We raised our right hand, so we should get the services that we rightly deserve,” she said. “And that’s all we expect — we want to get the services that our male counterparts get when they go to the VA.”

Democratic lawmakers say the VA can expand services to include abortion care under existing law. Last month, senators on the Armed Services Committee pressed the agency to “take immediate administrative action to offer abortions and all abortion-related services to veterans and eligible dependents.”

Angela Shinn, who served as an Army officer, asked Brownley at the Austin session, “Why is the VA not doing any women’s health care for abortion? Why is that not happening?”

The VA denied multiple requests for comment but said in a statement that an estimated 300,000 women veterans of childbearing age rely on the agency for health care, including contraception, fertility care and maternity care.

“We will continue to make sure they have timely access to the full suite of reproductive care,” the VA said.

Women are the fastest-growing cohort in the veteran community, but some are concerned abortion restrictions could impact recruitment, which is at a low point across all branches of the military.

“This is fuel to the fire,” said Plescher, lead outreach coordinator for Grace After Fire, a female veterans group based in Houston. “We stood side by side, shoulder to shoulder when we served. There wasn’t a problem. I was the most visible service member, and I’m the most invisible veteran. Why? Why is that?”