Veterans commemorate 100 years of healthcare for women in the military

Even as the number of women retiring from defending our nation’s freedom grows, the care available to them isn’t well known.

DES MOINES, Iowa — When you are asked to paint a mental picture of a veteran, who comes to mind? 

Women are the fastest growing group of veterans. There are more than 2 million female veterans are active in the VA system and have served in the United States armed services. 

As the number of women retiring from defending our nation’s freedom grows, the knowledge about the care they can get isn’t well known.

Donna Albro served in the military from 1961 to 1964. At the time of her service, women were not allowed in combat, but this didn’t mean Albro didn’t have to fight for her position.

“At that time, women were not allowed to go into the military, unless they had parents signature. Well, that really bummed me out. Neither my mother nor my father would consider signing. They felt the military is not for a woman,” Albro said. 

Tina Carter-Shields started her career as an Air Force firefighter in 1980. 

“In the fire stations, you know, you ran into, there was usually one female, maybe two, if you’re lucky,” Carter-Shields said. 

Both Carter-Shields and Albro served at a time when dedicated care for women, both physical and mental, didn’t exist in the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. Instead, they were forced to deal with tough experiences alone.  

“During that time that I was in, you’re trying to figure out when that you were feeling like you were discriminated against what is it from? Are they treating me this way, because I’m an African American, or are they treating me this way because they think that I’m a lesbian? You know, and it was difficult, ” Tina Carter-Shields told Local 5. 

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Christine O’Hearn is a nurse practitioner, army veteran and former reservist. She too fought discrimination — at home from her husband.

“He told me I couldn’t do it, and so, I was like, ‘Watch this,'” O’Hearn said.

Two years after O’Hearn signed up in 1992, the VA began providing gender-specific services like pap smears, breast exams and birth control.

“For a long time, the VA has taken care of a majority of men. And so as the the providers, get to know the women and all the different challenges and problems and issues that we have, that they’re going to become better versed in the future with that,” O’Hearn shared. 

Christine, Tina and Donna answered their nation’s call and created a place for themselves in a male-dominated military, and they hoped for change. That “change” started when the three decided to work for the Central Iowa VA after active duty with the goal to create an awareness for women’s care options in the VA.

“Just trying to get the information out there. you know, any female veterans that I know, I tell them come on over, you know, because you can get just about everything that you can that you need here,” Carter-Shields said. 

Sep. 14 marks 100 years of health care for female veterans — care that’s improved with each decade, highlighted by the message of three extraordinary women who promise, no matter the circumstance, no women gets left behind.

“They have whatever you need to make you whole, physically or mentally,” Albro told Local 5. 

These veterans are proud to be a part of the VA and the progress it’s making in providing women’s care. And they know there’s still more work to be done. 

Next week, Local 5 will take a deeper look at what specific programs the VA offers women, especially when it comes to PTSD and sexual assault in the military. Women who’ve experienced these traumas will share their personal stories of how the VA helped them cope and heal. 

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