Women have served in the military from the American Revolution to the present. Unfortunately, women have been historically underrepresented in utilizing the benefits provided for them, and have often been quieter in claiming their veteran status. Women now make up 15% of active duty and 18% of Guard/Reserves service members. Based on the upward trend of women in all branches of service, the number of women Veterans and female VA users is expected to double again in the next decade. While the number of women VA users continues to grow, women comprise only six percent of VA’s total patient population. Women Veterans underutilize VA care and benefits, largely due to a lack of knowledge about VA benefits and available services. That being said, as women leave active service and convert to veteran status, certain common issues afflicting their mental and physical health are emerging. The following are the top five most prevalent service-connected disability conditions claimed by female Veterans and accounted for 33 percent of all service-connected disabilities for women Veterans. Additionally, we will touch on Total Disability due to Individual Unemployability (TDIU or simply IU), a claim for total disability when a Veteran is not able to maintain substantially gainful employment as a result of their service-connected disabilities.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
PTSD is a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening, traumatic, or terrifying event. Events such as combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault. It’s normal to have upsetting memories, feel on edge, or have trouble sleeping after this type of event. At first, it may be hard to do normal daily activities, like go to work, go to school, or spend time with people you care about. But most people start to feel better after a few weeks or months. If it’s been longer than a few months and you’re still having symptoms, you may have PTSD. In 2015, nearly 48,000 women Veterans received compensation for PTSD. PTSD accounted for roughly 12 percent of all service-connected disabilities for women Veterans. Symptoms of PTSD are tricky to characterize because the amount of time it takes for them to manifest varies widely.
Major Depressive Disorder
In 2015, roughly 26,500 women Veterans received compensation for major depressive disorder. Major Depressive Disorder is a common but serious mood disorder. It is often accompanied by low self-esteem, loss of interest in normally enjoyable activities, low energy, and pain without a clear cause. People may also occasionally have false beliefs or see or hear things that others cannot. Some people have periods of depression separated by years in which they are normal while others nearly always have symptoms that are continuously present. Major depressive disorder can negatively affect a person’s personal, work, or school life; as well as sleeping, eating habits, and general health. To be diagnosed with depression, the symptoms must be present for at least two weeks.
In 2015, over 24,000 women Veterans received compensation for migraines as a disabling condition. Symptoms of a migraine can include nausea and/or vomiting, sensitivity to light and sound, and changes in vision. According to the Mayo Clinic, migraines often begin in childhood, adolescence or early adulthood. Migraines may progress through four stages: prodromal (subtle changes that warn of an upcoming migraine); aura (usually visual disturbances that may occur before or during migraines), headache (usually lasts from 4 to 72 hours); and post-drome (some may feel drained while others may feel elated after a migraine attack), though you may not experience all stages. People with a chronic migraine are more likely to be unable to perform the functions required of them at their job, and less likely to be employed full time than people who have migraines less frequently. Over a three month period, people with chronic migraines miss an average of 63 days of work, school, and time with family.
Chronic Back Pain (Lumbosacral or cervical strain)
Chronic back pain (CBP) changes everything. Things like driving a car, sitting at a desk, or even tying a shoelace become difficult tasks. The condition can be debilitating and, unfortunately, for as many as 40 percent of Veterans over 65 years old, it is a way of life. Untreated, CBP can contribute to depression, disability, and a poor quality of life. Unfortunately, the treatment options can seem only marginally better: Long-term opioid use or invasive procedures such as surgery are often the norm for those with CBP. In 2015, roughly 22,200 women veterans received compensation for lower back pain. According to the Cleveland Clinic, Center for Continuing Education, low back pain can best be described in terms of specific accompanying features. Low back pain is acute if it has a duration of about 1 month or less. Chronic low back pain is usually defined by symptoms of two months or more. Both acute and chronic low back pain can be further defined by the presence or absence of neurologic symptoms (a disorder of the nervous system) and signs.
Uterus and Ovaries, Removal of, Complete
In 2015, roughly 12,700 women Veterans had the complete removal of their uterus and ovaries. Roughly an additional 10,500 female Veterans had the removal of their uterus that included their corpus. (The main part or body of a bodily structure or organ). According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service, Office of Women’s Health, a hysterectomy is a surgery to remove a woman’s uterus (also known as the womb). The uterus is where a baby grows when a woman is pregnant. In most cases, the entire uterus is removed. The doctor may also remove the ovaries and the fallopian tubes during the procedure. The ovaries are the organs that produce estrogen and other hormones. The fallopian tubes are the structures that transport the egg from the ovary to the uterus. The surgery can be used to treat a number of chronic pain conditions as well as certain types of cancer and infections.
Individual Unemployability (IU) is a component of VA’s disability compensation benefits program which allows Veterans to receive financial compensation at the 100-percent level even though their combined service-connected disability rating is below 100 percent under the schedule for rating disabilities. In order to qualify, a Veteran must be unable to maintain substantially gainful employment as a result of her service-connected disabilities. In addition, the Veteran must have one service-connected disability rated at 60 percent or higher or two or more service-connected disabilities (at least one of which is rated at 40 percent) with a combined rating of 70 percent or higher. Veterans who receive IU compensation are allowed to work as long as that employment is not considered substantially gainful. In other words, their employment must be considered marginal employment. In 2015, about 6 percent of women Veterans who received compensation for a service-connected disability were receiving IU compensation.
As a nation we need to fully recognize the contributions and sacrifices that women in the military are making—we owe them this respect and opportunity to heal and successfully transition home. Our nation must address and change the culture that ignores or minimizes women’s’ service and their contribution to our military mission, so that they too can fully benefit from the array of services that have been established for veterans, including for those who served in combat theaters and other hardship deployments. Given the sudden increase in female Veterans and lagging adjustments within DOD and VA entities, women Veterans are often opposed and often denied entitlement to service-connected disability claims. Sometimes, an event that occurred in service may take many years to cause a disability. In these cases, the veteran is entitled to bring a claim no matter how long it has been since he or she got out of the service. Just as important, a veteran has the right to reopen a claim that has already been denied by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. In order to get another chance at proving her claim, all the veteran needs to do is produce New and Material evidence showing that her claim should be granted.