Online Survey For Women Veterans To Make A Difference

Kiersten Downs "takes the wheel."

Kiersten Downs “takes the wheel” as she prepared for her cross-country cycling ride to raise awareness of student veterans and money for the Student Veterans of America.

Women are the fastest growing group within the veteran population according to the Veterans Health Administration. Yet female vets may not identify themselves as a veteran or use their VA benefits.

Why women vets avoid mentioning their military service is one of several questions being explored by University of South Florida doctoral student Kiersten Downs.

Her dissertation, “Women Veterans and Re-Entry after Military Service- A Research Study,” will include information from an anonymous, online survey of women veterans from all eras. She’ll also interview both female and male veterans and community stakeholders.

“Probably one of the biggest hurdles is just finding people to participate,” Downs said. “But I think the message I want to communicate to my fellow veterans is that in order for legislators and people in Washington DC to make policies that are going to serve us as military and veterans, they need to understand us.”

After eight years in the Air Force and Air National Guard and as the former president of the University of South Florida Student Veterans Association, Downs knows there’s a lot to learn about the changing world of women veterans

Bringing the veterans’ experiences to elected officials and policy makers is the mission of her dissertation research.

“My overall goal is to really advocate for our population for greater representation in Washington DC and also at the state and local levels and to use the experiences that I’m gathering from other women veterans to ultimately change policy so that it serves us and our population,” Downs said.

Women veterans are invited to take the online survey. There’s also an opportunity to volunteer for an additional phone interview. She will also maintain, a blog, a Facebook page on her women veterans re-entry dissertation and has a Twitter handle, @WmnVetsResearch..

If Downs sounds like a familiar voice, she also served as the community outreach coordinator for WUSF’s Veterans Coming Home project in 2014. She is the former president of the USF Student Veterans Association and the summer of 2013 she cycled across the United States to raise awareness of student veterans. Her ride also raised more than $50,000 in donations for the national Student Veterans of America.

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Florida Women Veterans Meeting In Tampa

U.S. Army Sgt. Ashley Hort keeps her weapon at the ready as she provides security for her fellow soldiers during a raid in Al Haswah, Iraq, on March 21, 2007.  Hort is a team sergeant with the 127th Military Police Company deployed from Hanau, Germany.  DoD photo by Spc. Olanrewaju Akinwunmi, U.S. Army.

U.S. Army Sgt. Ashley Hort keeps her weapon at the ready as she provides security for her fellow soldiers during a raid in Al Haswah, Iraq, on March 21, 2007. Hort is a team sergeant with the 127th Military Police Company deployed from Hanau, Germany. DoD photo by Spc. Olanrewaju Akinwunmi, U.S. Army.

This week, women veterans from throughout Florida will meet in Tampa for the 2nd Annual Women Veterans’ Conference. The goal is to sign them up for available benefits and resources.

This is the second year the state is reaching out to women veterans. The conference has expanded to two days, July 30-31, 2015, at the University of South Florida Tampa campus to accommodate demand.

“We had so many women veterans stay behind for hours afterward last year,” said Alene Tarter, director of benefits and assistance for the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs (FDVA). “So, we decided to have it for two days.”

Tarter said all women veterans should attend the free gathering even if they’re already signed up for VA benefits.

“Because benefits change all the time and new benefits are added all the time,” Tarter said.

There also will be workshops on employment, educational opportunities and vocational training.

Florida has 160,000 women veterans and many have never applied for VA benefits.

Helping women veterans apply for benefits is only part of the conference. Larri Gerson, claims supervisor with FDVA, will present a workshop on the VA benefits appeals process.

“And then going through the process of having women veterans understand what we can do to help them with their claim with PTSD, MST (Military Sexual Trauma) before a hearing,” Gerson said. “And they can come in prepared- much better prepared, than if they were to go in by themselves.”

The conference is free and open to women vets, their spouses and support. Online registration is available through the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

Florida Puts Out Call To All Women Veterans

Florida has 160,000 women veterans living in the state, yet some of those women do not consider themselves a veteran and many more have never applied for veterans’ benefits.

 Female Veterans in Iraq. A New Resource for Female Vet on VA health care and benefits: 1-855-VA-WOMEN. Credit Department of Veterans Affairs


Female Veterans in Iraq. A New Resource for Female Vet on VA health care and benefits: 1-855-VA-WOMEN.
Credit Department of Veterans Affairs

Matching women veterans with available benefits, resources and support is the goal of the 2nd Annual Women Veterans’ Conference July 30-31, 2015 at the University of South Florida

“Women veterans have a lot of gender specific issues,” said Alene Tarter, director of benefits and assistance for the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs (FDVA). “But often they don’t consider themselves veterans because male veterans or male family members have told them that they are not.”

She said many of the older women veterans are unaware that their veterans or entitled to veterans benefits.

“I’m a veteran. I only served a couple of years in the Air Force and I didn’t know I was a veteran for 25 years,” said Larri Gerson, supervisor of claims for FDVA.

From a previous Operation Stand Down.

From a previous Operation Stand Down.

Raising awareness and then helping women file for their veteran benefits is one reason why the state agency is planning the free, two-day conference in Tampa.

“I’ll be talking about the appeals process having women veterans understand what we can do to help them with their claim for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and MST, military sexual trauma,” Gerson said.

Sessions also will cover employment, vocational training, and an elder law expert along with an opportunity to sit down with benefits experts from the FDVA who will help women vets with their claims.

The 2nd Annual Florida Women’s Veterans Conference is free and open to women vets, their spouses and support. Online registration is available through the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

Lessons Learned as Director of Tampa’s Haley VA Hospital

Kathleen Fogarty is leaving one of the nation's busiest VA hospitals after almost four years at the helm.

Kathleen Fogarty is leaving one of the nation’s busiest VA hospitals after almost four years at the helm.

Tampa’s James A. Haley VA Medical Center will soon have a new director. Marjorie Hedstrom, the medical center director at the VA in Popular Bluff, Missouri, will take over in just over a week.

The current director, Kathleen Fogarty, is leaving Haley by choice.

She’s taken the same position at a smaller, less hectic VA hospital in Kansas City. That’s after almost four years at one of the nation’s busiest veteran medical centers serving some 200,000 veterans living in the Tampa Bay Region.

 

“I began my career at the Kansas city VA medical center as a clinical dietician in 1986,”Fogarty said.

The 55-year-old director said she’s breaking her rule – to never go back to a previous place of employment. But after serving 32 years in the VA system, she said she is ready to “go home.”

Haley VA director Kathleen Fogarty chats with a veteran inside the American Heroes Cafe.

Haley VA director Kathleen Fogarty chats with a veteran inside the American Heroes Cafe.

She said the Kansas City VA is not as complex or as busy as Haley, but it will help her ease into retirement while bringing lessons learned at Haley.

One of those lessons became very public when a family went to the news media about the VA placing a surveillance camera inside the smoke detector of their family member’s room.

“Do I have regrets? I don’t have regrets. I know the decision was made for the safety of that patient,” Fogarty said. “Would I do something differently? I would make a huge sign on the camera. And would I choose that camera? No I’ve said I wouldn’t choose that type of camera ever again.”

She said the episode prompted other changes like the creation of a code of conduct for families.

Youth volunteer Mairyn Harris, 14, and Kathleen Fogarty, director of James A. Haley VA Medical Center. (July 2014)

Youth volunteer Mairyn Harris, 14, and Kathleen Fogarty, director of James A. Haley VA Medical Center. (July 2014)

Another issue prevalent throughout the Veterans Health Care system has been long waiting lists for care. It’s one of the reasons why Fogarty was temporarily tapped to take over VISN 18, the VA network that oversees the troubled Phoenix medical center which sparked the whole VA scandal.

“I don’t want you to believe that we have fixed all access problems here at James A Haley because we still, we have a tremendous amount of requests for specialty types of care,” Fogarty said.

To handle that demand, Fogarty extended clinic hours and added Saturday appointments especially in the area of mental health. And for women veterans, Fogarty was instrumental in getting features like a separate entrance designed in the women’s clinic at the VA’s primary care annex.

“I don’t think that there are a lot of VAs that have put lactation rooms in. It was pretty rare to even have a child’s play area,” Fogarty said. “We listened and we really think we have a model.”

Other milestones under her watch at Haley:

  • The first VA hospital in the country to have a USO day room.
  • The opening of the new Polytrauma Medical Center with a climbing wall and other X-Game type recreation.
  • The opening of the American Heroes Café – a restaurant setting inside the hospital.
  • The opening of a 10 bed palliative and hospice unit.
  • A new urology unit.
  • A 100 bed spinal cord injury unit that mirrors the same family resources as the polytrauma center
  • The opening of a 1,501 space parking garage and valet parking at Haley’s two main entrances.

Fogarty will remain as the interim director of VISN 18 until a permanent director takes over then she will settle into her new post in Kansas City. She wasn’t sure of her last day at Haley, however, her replacement starts Feb. 2, 2015.

 

Reaching Women Veterans Is A Challenge

 Female Veterans in Iraq. A New Resource for Female Vet on VA health care and benefits: 1-855-VA-WOMEN. Credit Department of Veterans Affairs


Female Veterans in Iraq. A New Resource for Female Vet on VA health care and benefits: 1-855-VA-WOMEN.
Credit Department of Veterans Affairs

What happens if you plan an event to honor women veterans and none of them come? That’s a real concern at the Disabled American Veterans Chapter 97 in Sarasota. The organization is planning a free event August 30th for the area’s women veterans, but so far, they’re having a tough time generating interest.

The Honoring Women Veterans in Sarasota event is scheduled from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the DAV Chapter building, 7177 Bee Ridge Road, Sarasota. Veteran women from the Sarasota region can register for the event and day care by calling 941-580-0999.

“Our response, so far, has been lackluster,” said Michael Lannan, commander of DAV Chapter 97. “I’ll be honest with you, we’ve had only one person RSVP and we put out flyers and posters. The team that’s been putting this together has been going around to the different colleges. They’ve gone to the Vet Center. They’ve pretty much hit everywhere where there’s going to be women veterans.”

The chapter’s treasurer, Iris Johnson, is part of that team. She said a church group offering free school supplies to children of women veterans had the same problem.

“And they couldn’t find one single veteran woman with children and they had 25 slots that they couldn’t fill,” Johnson said. “They (women veterans) have to be somewhere. Somehow, we have to identify them.”

The Sarasota Disabled American Veterans Chapter 97 building on Bee Ridge Road.

The Sarasota Disabled American Veterans Chapter 97 building on Bee Ridge Road.

The chapter commander is adjusting to reach the younger, female veterans. They recently started a Facebook page and are learning about social media.

Getting messages out to veterans is the job of Karen Collins, communications director at Tampa’s James A. Haley Veterans Hospital.

“You have to use social media. You have to come at them in multiple avenues,” Collins said.

The Haley VA has a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a Youtube channel and Collins routinely posts photos on Flickr.

But there are other issues at work too. Capturing the attention of women veterans is one of the biggest challenges for Pam Smith-Beatty, the women’s program manager at Haley.

“Part of the problem is that women don’t often think of themselves as veterans,” Smith-Beatty said. “I served for 22 years in the Air Force. But when I think of a veteran, I think of my dad, a Korean War Vet. I don’t necessarily think of myself.”

National statistics show that women make up 15 percent of active-duty and 18 percent of the Guard and Reserves but only 6 percent of the VA population.

“We’re finding that for the OEF/OIF/OND veterans, they’re actually doing a good job at capturing them. About 68% of those veterans are actually using the VA,” Smith-Beatty said.

Yet overall, she said the VA is serving only about 40 percent of eligible women veterans.

“So how do you get the other 60 percent? We look at any kind of  recognition event,” Smith-Beatty said.

She started up educational sessions every other month called Pink Bag Lunch and Learns.  Only 17 attended the first Pink Bag event, but as many as 120 have attended. So Smith-Beatty offered some advice to the Sarasota chapter of the DAV.

“If you only get 15 people, then be happy because you’re reaching that 15 people,” Smith-Beatty said.

You can listen to the story on WUSF 89.7 FM Public Radio.

Florida Hosts Women Only Veterans Conference

Courtesy: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Courtesy: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

There are more than 160,000 women veterans living and working in Florida.

“Many of them don’t even realize – they’re veterans. They feel they’re not recognized as veterans,” said Alene Tarter, director of benefits and assistance for the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs (FDVA) based at Bay Pines.

Larri Gerson used to be one of those women veterans. She now supervises benefits claims at the FDVA.

“I didn’t know I was a veteran for 25 years because I didn’t grow up in a military family,” Gerson said.

“It wasn’t until I came here working at the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs that I realized how important it is to have that knowledge.”

So, Florida is sponsoring its first Women’s Veterans Regional Conference, March 7 from 9 am to 1 pm, at the Veterans Affairs Regional Office, 9500 Bay Pines Blvd, St. Petersburg.

Dr. Betty Moseley Brown is the scheduled keynote speaker.

Dr. Betty Moseley Brown is the scheduled keynote speaker.

Navy veteran Cynthia Brown, a claims examiner and state women veterans’ coordinator, is organizing the conference around the current issues affecting women vets.

“Employment issues, homelessness, mental health and obviously health care and benefits,” Brown said.

One of those benefits rarely used by women is the government hiring preference extended to all veterans according to Jacquelyn Consentino, the FDVA veterans’ preference administrator.

“Men use it. They use it all the time, but for some reason when the women fill out their applications they just glide over it and don’t seem to use it,” Consentino said.

Consentino is one of several panelists who will field questions at the end during an open-microphone session.

“What I want them to know when they come to the conference, I’m here to help them,” Consentino said.

The conference is for women veterans only.

“A lot of times services are geared towards men and their needs and their health issues. But for women, we have separate needs and health issues and this allows for a forum for us to come together,” said Chava Grier, a former U.S. Army military police officer.

The keynote speaker is Dr. Betty Moseley Brown, associate director of the VA Center for Women Veterans of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Online registration is not required, but it is preferred. You can find more information at www.floridavets.org and register here.

Listen to the voices of some of Florida’s women veterans in a WUSF 89.7 FM news story.

Student Vet Dedicates Part of Bike America to Slain Colleague

Kiersten Downs in Cedar City, Utah. Photo credit: Annie Pace.

Kiersten Downs in Cedar City, Utah. Photo credit: Annie Pace.

Kiersten Downs, a University of South Florida student veteran, was asked to dedicate part of her journey across the U.S. to another student veteran, Maribel Ramos.

Ramos was a Cal State student veteran recently murdered just before graduating. Kiersten pays tribute to her fellow student veteran in the video below.

Although the two never met, Kiersten says. “We all stand together.”

“It’s really hard when these things happen because as veterans we’ve all seen and lived through a lot of violence ourselves,” Kiersten said. “And when it happens on our own soil to a fellow Vet, it’s really hard to understand.”

You can check out Kiersten’s daily progress on her Bike America website or on Twitter.

She started cycling across the country two weeks ago and has advanced as far as Cedar City, Utah

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