Standing Down for Women Veterans: One Woman's Story
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There are over 1.8 million women veterans in the United States. In Nashville, Tennessee, Mary Ross is a tireless advocate for the needs of women veterans. As Deputy Executive Director of Operation Stand Down, she created the Women’s Veterans Network, and helped build support for the brand-new Women Veterans Comprehensive Healthcare Center. Mary shares her journey as an advocate for women veterans.
Mary Ross has found her center working with veterans who are homeless as the Deputy Executive Director of Operation Stand Down in Nashville, Tennessee. She was in the Army for twenty-one years and served as a combat medic during the first Gulf War. As a veteran, she has been instrumental in creating and strengthening opportunities for other women veterans.
In 1997, Mary helped to form the Women’s Veterans Network with several other women veterans. The network provides outreach and education. It is a vital source of experience and knowledge, and helps inform women veterans about their eligibility for benefits. The network also raised funds to create a transitional home for female veterans who are homeless.
Historically, women veterans were often not aware of their eligibility for benefits. They may also have been reluctant to come forward as veterans. “When women served in World Wars I and II, they did not receive their benefits as veterans until the 1960s,” explains Mary. There has been a stigma associated with the type of work women have done in the military, but many strides have been made since the first Gulf War.
Among the many unique challenges that female veterans face is the stereotype that women have not served in combat. “Today,” explains Mary, “there is no such thing as the ‘rear’ or ‘the frontline’ because of the way wars are fought. The frontline is when the plane leaves the United States. Every woman and man who goes to war is in harm’s way.” Additionally, women process things differently than men do. Issues such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and sexual trauma are complicated.
Mary was introduced to Operation Stand Down when the Women’s Veterans Network volunteered for the group’s annual event. Operation Stand Down provides transitional housing and supportive services to veterans. “I was not aware that we had so many homeless veterans. Working to help homeless veterans really fills my need to serve. It has been my therapy for coping with PTSD. You must learn to identify the things that trigger you, situations that create anxiety, and other behavioral issues that go along with that.”
Mary sees her work and her community of support to be a blessing. Part of her support network is her husband, who served in Vietnam and the first Gulf War. “We understand each other on that level. There are a lot of things that he goes through that he doesn’t have to explain to me. When he gets anxious, I just back off and let him have the space he needs.”
In addition to her role at Operation Stand Down, Mary has been a key figure in Nashville’s efforts to provide a medical center that meets the needs of female veterans. “The Veterans Administration (VA) was never set up to treat women because they never anticipated the numbers of women veterans who would need healthcare,” says Mary. She is quick to say that she always received good services from the VA. But she also understands that providers who are not trained in gender-specific services are not always able to serve women veterans effectively.
“Eventually we were noticed by Washington and we got the attention we needed to ensure that all healthcare providers would be trained in women’s health issues.” A ten-year effort resulted in the opening of the new Women Veterans Comprehensive Healthcare Center. Mary describes this VA clinic as “the premiere clinic for female veterans in the country.”
Before, female vets received treatment and had to discuss diagnoses in rooms that often lacked privacy. “When you go in for a pap smear, you don’t want anyone to be able to just walk into the room,” explains Mary. There are 26,000 female veterans in the state of Tennessee, and 6,000 receiving services from the VA Tennessee Valley Healthcare System.
Prior to the opening of the Women Veterans Comprehensive Healthcare Center, women only had access to gynecological care one day per month. Women veterans now have access to a medical center staffed with female healthcare specialists and increased access to gynecological care. “The last thing you want is a male gynecologist or a waiting room filled with men,” explains Mary. She says that the current administration was very supportive of the Women Veterans Comprehensive Healthcare Center.
The Women Veterans Comprehensive Healthcare Center has a full range of services. The staff is made up of women who are trained in gender-specific healthcare issues. They offer complete medical and mental health services, prescriptions, individual and group therapy, and addictions counseling. The services are offered with privacy, in a woman-centered environment. While there are other VA clinics throughout the country geared towards the needs of women veterans, the Nashville site is the most comprehensive.
“My passion is helping homeless veterans come off the street. Helping people to overcome obstacles and assisting vets in finding health and happiness is what helps me,” says Mary.
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