As VA benefits expand, Florida's women veterans are urged to apply
About 160,000 of Florida's more than 1.5 million veterans are women -- that's the second most among U.S. states. And many of them may not be seeking the benefits they have earned.
Now there's a statewide push to get more women to utilize those benefits.
'SUCK IT UP, BUTTERCUP'
Retired Army Col. Paula Edwards, who enlisted at 18 and retired at 50, is part of a multi-generational military family.
But after retirement, this Orlando grandmother -- who has numerous medical conditions tied to her service -- didn't want to apply with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
"I was really just suck it up," Edwards said. "Suck it up, Buttercup, and keep going."
Another woman veteran had to convince her to pursue disability claims.
"You know, it's great to get the compensation," Edwards said, "but the fact that I can get care for all of the different things that are going on in my body is just phenomenal."
NEW VA BENEFITS
A few years ago, Congress took a hard look at how the VA has met -- and failed to meet -- the needs of America's 2 million women veterans.
Out of that came the bipartisan Deborah Sampson Act, which President Donald Trump signed into law shortly before leaving office. It aims to transform VA health care to better serve women veterans, improve care for victims of military sexual trauma and bolster other services.
And now, the PACT Act, signed by President Joe Biden last summer, has vastly expanded the medical conditions -- including numerous cancers -- that automatically qualify veterans for health care and other benefits. That's if they served overseas and may have been exposed to toxic burn pits.
In Orlando, retired Army 1st Sgt. Daila Espeut-Jones says the military is still seen as male dominated.
'WE ARE EQUAL'
"That's what it was many, many decades ago," she said. "But things and times have changed. We're evolving. We've proven that we are equal."
And women are a rapidly growing, diverse part of the veteran community.
She joined a Florida Department of Veterans Affairs-sponsored committee looking into the needs of women veterans. It recommended more homeless shelters for women vets with children, changes to make veteran nursing homes women-friendly and a state advisory committee that held its first meeting this month.
The fact-finding committee's report also focused on outreach, on connecting women to a wide range of benefits.
Espeut-Jones likes to wear an outfit showing her last military rank. She says people think it's for her spouse or grandfather -- not her.
"And they're in disbelief," she said, "because I'm African American with dreads and I have long nails. Those are my post-retirement things that I love. You know, I couldn't do it when I was in the military."
She meets many women who don't want to acknowledge their veteran status, Espeut-Jones said. "They would say, 'Oh, I only served three years in the United States Army.' And I would make an on-the-spot correction. 'Thank you so much for your service, sister. Please never say that you only served three years. Always tell everyone that you proudly served in the United States military.'"
A FOCUS ON WOMEN'S HEALTH
The VA says an increasing percentage of women veterans -- often younger than their male peers -- ARE connecting with VA health care. In 2015, they were 7.5 percent of overall patients.
The Orlando VA Health Care System says its services include women's health staff at all sites and five surgeons specializing in women's issues.
For Col. Edwards that matters.
"It's just night and day with having a woman surgeon who's a urogynecologist," she said. "She can deal with all of your issues. You don't have to go to see a urologist that just really doesn't get you."
Her advice to women veterans: Register with the VA, get involved and take advantage of the help that's available.
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