Sharon Grant stood in front of more than 75 people and did something many fellow Vietnam veterans often struggle to do: tell the story of her military service.
As the guest speaker at the Women Veterans Commemoration on March 24 at the Harry S. Truman Memorial Veterans’ Hospital (Truman VA) in Columbia, the Jefferson City resident spoke about joining the U.S. Army in January 1969 during her junior year at University of Northern Iowa and how she entered dental hygiene school while first stationed at Fort Rucker in Alabama.
Grant fought back tears talking about meeting and later becoming engaged to a helicopter pilot, and the deep anguish she felt when her fiancé died during a rescue mission in Vietnam. She discussed following the calling to support troops in Vietnam by enlisting in the regular army during the time the Women’s Army Corps was preparing to disband near the end of her enlistment in 1972.
She described her service in South Vietnam and her traveling in her “Tooth Fairy” jeep to clean teeth, assist in surgery and train soldiers and locals. Grant also relayed a horrible incident involving her near kidnapping and an assault on the last day of her service in Vietnam before being able to return home safely.
After getting out of U.S. Army in 1973, Grant used her GI bill to get a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and a master’s degree in social work, with the latter leading her to conduct the first major research project on women veterans in Vietnam who was exposed to Agent Orange. She made social work her career and also became an artist and an author, publishing a nonfiction book about her own military service, “Dreams That Blister Sleep: A Nurse in Vietnam.”
After Grant ended her speech, the crowd gave her a well-deserved standing ovation. The applause did not only honor her as a Vietnam veteran. It was a salute to her ability to remember and respect her military service, an experience she had blocked out for 32 years due to severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“People did not want to talk about the war and even fewer people knew that women served in a war zone (during Vietnam). … I finally had to seek physical and mental help for PTSD and cancer. Because of these experiences, I learned the importance of loving one another in a deeper and more profound way,” she said. “For those who have served our country, I hope you would consider using the services of the Truman VA. The medical and behavioral help teams are among the finest in the nation. … I have always been treated with kindness, sensitivity and respect here. I could eventually … share what I had blocked out for 32 years.”
Even though such services are available to all veterans, the women veterans program through the Truman VA also serves as a liaison, connecting ladies to primary medical and behavioral care, community resources and camaraderie through events and activities. Keeping its pulse on evolving female veterans’ medical needs makes it one of the leading programs of its kind in the nation.
THE EVOLUTION OF FEMALE VETERANS
The dynamics of female military service and the veteran population are changing. During World War II, just 4 percent of the military was made up of women, and that same percent held true for women making up the veteran population in 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. However, by 2040, women will be 18 percent of the veteran population, with about the same percent of military services done by women currently.
Many women veterans, particularly those serving during World War II, Korea and Vietnam, may not see themselves as a veteran.
“If you ask them if they are a veteran, they will probably say no. But if you ask them if they served in the military, they would say yes. Some veterans don’t feel like they are a veteran because they didn’t serve overseas or during wartime. But they are a veteran,” said Cindy Stivers, women veterans program manager through Truman VA. “Women also wear many different hats. Some of them might say they are not a veteran, even though they earned the title. They are wearing the mother hat, the caregiver hat, the student hat. Those things come first in their priorities.”
Stivers, a U.S. Marine from 1990-1994, is a proud veteran from Macon, Missouri. Stivers served as an aviation maintenance administration clerk and was stationed at bases in Arizona, California, Korea, Alaska and Japan. Despite being one of only 15 females among 220 Marines assigned to a squadron during her basic training, she felt she received great support throughout her service, retiring as a corporal.
She became a strong veteran advocate, dealing with aspects of each of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ three main umbrellas: cemetery and burials, benefits and health care. Prior to taking her current position six years ago, Stivers worked with the Jacksonville Veterans Cemetery in northeast Missouri and the Missouri Veterans Commission as a veteran benefits service officer and the statewide coordinator for female veterans.
However, Stivers didn’t begin utilizing health care services through Truman VA for about 10 to 15 years after she left the Marines. When she returned to her rural Missouri community in 1994, she felt the guidance given to veterans transitioning into civilian life was different than it is today.
“I felt like it was ‘thank you for your service, here are your discharge papers, you figure out the rest of your life.’ The resources we have available now for veterans coming out of service and on the transitioning team on both sides … have greatly improved from my generation and even generations before that,” she said. “Before you step out of those doorways from being in the military to becoming a civilian, they are teaching them the importance of enrolling in the VA healthcare, enrolling into the GI bill and so much more. … Working with the Missouri Veterans Commission and the veteran service officers out there … I understood I could enroll in those programs. I think the knowledge is so vast and available now for newer veterans, and that is wonderful.”
A TEAM AT EACH VETERAN’S SIDE
The VA health system truly has expanded over the years, now including 144 hospitals, 1,221 outpatient community clinics and hundreds of vet centers throughout the United States. The Truman VA health system covers 43 counties and Pike County, Illinois, and the largest rural population of veterans in Missouri, according to Truman VA Public Affairs Officer Stephen Gaither.
Truman VA also offers eight community-based outpatient clinics, including Jefferson City and Osage Beach, to ensure primary health care and mental health care is available within about 30 miles of each veteran. With the majority of specialty health care based at the hospital, additional services were added in recent years at those clinics, including audiology and podiatry services in Jefferson City.
As the dynamics have changed for VA health care, so have the veterans utilizing those services. According to Gaither, the thousands of patients using Truman VA are on average male, Vietnam-era veterans and in their mid-60s. However, a larger number of younger veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are utilizing the hospital, and so are more women.
“The average age of a woman veteran using the VA is about 45. We have a 19-year-old to the oldest (in their 90s),” Stivers said.
Stivers tells women veterans that when they come to the VA, they will receive care for just about everything “from head to toe and from your soul out.”
“(The women veterans) are caregivers and we have to put ourselves second to our families. But we need to be up on our own health care, so we can be a better caregiver ourselves,” she said.
The VA’s comprehensive primary care includes services for acute and chronic illnesses, preventative services and gender-specific care, as well as other medical expertise in areas such as mammography, gynecology, military sexual trauma-related care, counseling and military and environmental exposure.
“We have a lot of women veterans that come to the VA for their gynecological care, maternity care and infertility issues,” Stivers said, noting some of those providers are not currently on staff and community resources are used to help the veteran meet their needs, including partnerships with MU Health University and the Women & Children hospitals. ”The awareness of services that a woman veteran can get from us is (steering away) from being my grandfather’s hospital. … I have women veterans that come through the VA that request maternity care. It is a great service we can’t provide for them right here, but we’ll contract out through the community and pay for those services.”
As with many veterans, women typically come to the Truman VA for primary care or behavioral health, with depression, anxiety and PTSD being the most common behavioral health illnesses. However, the health system’s 47 providers are all trained in women’s health, according to Stivers.
“We are integrated, and that is part of the philosophy of our chief of staff, who is a female veteran,” Gaither said.
“The continual medical education our providers go through is not just hypertension; it is hypertension and how it affects women, diabetes and how it affects women,” Stivers said. “You talk about an integrated health system, we truly are that. … The veteran can come in and know they have all these people working together as a team.”
STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
That team — including a primary care provider, nurse, clerk, dietitian and social worker — is assigned to each veteran, with women veterans utilizing Stivers as a liaison to connect them to benefit services, veteran civic organizations and other resources they may need.
“For example, we have the American Legion Post 202 Auxiliary (in Columbia) that brings in baby bags for new mothers. We also send diapers, baby bags and other items to give back to our women veterans, too,” Stivers said.
That wealth of resources continues to grow as Stivers connects with VA medical centers across her Veterans Integrated Service Network, which covers nearly six states. They share training sessions, ideas and methods to keep up with the best women’s health care for all veterans.
The program also hosts private and public activities where female veterans can have camaraderie, such as the March 24 event. Central Missouri female veterans and the public viewed artifacts, photos and historic uniforms worn by female soldiers, visited with veteran organizations, and shared their stories. For many in attendance, they feel more events like these need to be held.
“We need to band together more. That is what this event is about, getting together and talking to each other. We need to have more of our women getting more involved in our service organizations. Having power in numbers is very important in these organizations,” said Melissa Mizio, a U.S. Army veteran at the event.
Stivers said the women veterans program helps keep that network active for participants. During her six years at the program’s helm, Stivers most memorable moments are seeing how the women evolve and do tremendous things after serving their country.
“I know one that was in a very stressful pregnancy when I came here six years ago. … She was a young mother straight out of the military, had a lot of behavioral health issues and medical conditions. She is now working here at the hospital and we are sharing stories of what her children are doing now,” she said. “To see these women finish college graduation, work on master’s degrees and better their health is amazing. … Even though we have served in different times, different units or branches of service, it is that connection we have as veterans.”
For more information about the women veterans program, call 573-814-6000 or visit www.columbiamo.va.gov.
Are you a female veteran looking for resources? Or perhaps you want to help fellow veterans in central Missouri? Here are just a few main contacts to get you started.
Central Missouri Women Veterans American Legion Post 1111 (all female veteran chapter) Contact Commander Vicki Buss, pictured above, at 573-808-0478 or visit their Facebook page. Additional area American Legion posts are: Herbert Williams American Legion Post 202 in Columbia (573-442-2950 or www.americanlegionpost202.org); and Roscoe Enloe Post 5 in Jefferson City (573-636-2311 or post5.com).
VFW Post 35 in St. Martins (just outside of Jefferson City): 573-893-7595
VFW Boone County Post 280 in Columbia: 573-442-8413 or vfw280.org
Combat Boots and High Heels: (nonprofit organization meeting the unique needs of female veterans and supporting all U.S. veterans) Contact at www.combatbootsandhighheels.org or visit their Facebook page.
Disabled American Veterans (DAV): (national nonprofit veteran and family support organization, with more than 20 Missouri chapters, including a Missouri Women Veteran Committee) Visit www.davmo.org.
Welcome Home, Inc.: (Columbia-based organization providing shelter for homeless veterans and working to provide a new Welcome Home campus) Visit www.welcomehomelessveterans.org.
Women Veterans Call Center: 855-VA-WOMEN
Center for Homeless Vets: 877-424-3838
Veteran Crisis Hotline: 800-273-8255, press 1
Caregiver Support Line: 855-260-3274
Jefferson City VA Clinic: (Located at 2707 W Edgewood Drive) 573-635-0233