Women are the fastest growing veteran population and veterans' groups are creating new methods to eliminate gender gaps in the military by providing specific services to females, including treating diabetes, high blood pressure, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and sexual trauma. Lolita Lopez reports from Los Angeles for NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on June 18, 2012.
Women are the fastest growing population among veterans, making up 8-percent of veterans in 2011, according to statistics from the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA Greater Los Angeles Health Care facility on Wilshire Boulevard is working to eliminate the gender gap in veteran care.
Former Marine Carolyn Williams works as a clerk at the women's clinic at the VA Greater Los Angeles Health Care facility on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, which is more than just her job.
"This is my clinic, too,” Williams said. “I am a patient here.”
A veteran since the late 1980s, Williams admits it took her some time to take advantage of benefits from the Department of Veteran Affairs.
Williams, 54, implores current female vets not to follow her lead.
"There is opportunity,” Williams said. “There is people in place to help you.”
Officials at the women’s clinic in LA said the facility, which opened in the early ‘90s, has been growing, making it able to meet the needs of more heroes returning home.
"This clinic, when it started it was two half a days a week. Now, it's four or five days from 8 to 4:30," said Dr. Fatma Batuman, medical director of the Comprehensive Women's Health Program of the VA Greater Los Angeles Health Care System.
Batuman said the women's clinic has a full staff – from a mammogram provider to a pharmacist in one place.
"The whole team is involved and we can all sit down together in the room and she feels better," Batuman added.
Diabetes and high-blood pressure are among the conditions most open reported by female veterans.
"Of course on top of that, especially those who have been in combat, they have PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder]; they have depression," Batuman said.
One in five women veterans who use the VA for healthcare screen positive for military sexual trauma, or MST, said Naomi Himmelfarb, staff psychologist at the VA Greater Los Angeles Health Care women's clinic.
Himmelfarb said that 17 percent of veterans, women and men, from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have reported being sexually abused or harassed during military service.
"What is unique to a VA facility is that we also see a large percentage of patients here with sexual trauma in matriculated military sexual trauma," Himmelfarb said.
Asking colleagues out and unwanted sexual advances are some of the scenarios that fall under MST.
Himmelfarb said there exists a culture within the military where MST occur.
"There are some really excellent commanding officers who do not take this at all and make sure the problem is taken care of but in a lot of cases that doesn't happen," Himmelfarb said
Earlier this year, several former and current military men and women filed a federal lawsuit against Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta among others. It alleges the government has turned a blind eye against alleged victims of MST, not allowing transfers to alleged victims and failing to punish alleged abusers.
While the Department of Defense would not comment on current litigation, a spokesperson tells NBC4 that a new female director has been appointed to the department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.
Policies created last December will allow for victims to transfer out of units and reports of sexual assaults will be provided to law enforcement and kept up to 50 years, the spokesperson said.
In the early ‘90s, Congress mandated the VA provide physical and mental health services free of charge for victims of MST.
Locally, there are MST coordinators in every clinic, adding to an open door policy where the needs of all vets will be taken into account. According to doctors, an environment that welcomes veterans helps make the transition to civilian life easier.