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Thousands of female veterans are coming home: Is the US ready to welcome them?

Franz De Leon

Veteran Julie Weckerlein and her family are shown last weekend in the Washington, D.C. area. She served in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007 with the Air Force. While in Iraq, she was a few yards away from another female service member who was killed by incoming mortar round.

Julie Weckerlein vividly recalls the horrid sounds that filled her base - and her head - after the incoming shell exploded: the radio call summoning the chaplain, the whirling blades of the chopper evacuating the burned remains of the Army sergeant killed in Iraq

Five years later, she still remembers the name of that dead soldier: Trista Morietti

“Females died over there, too,” said Weckerlein, who served in Afghanistan as well. She works today as a full-time federal employee in Washington, D.C. “But there is a cultural disconnect in our society. People don’t know: What is a female veteran? What does she look like? What does she bring to the table? What did we do over there?”  

Women compose 15 percent of homecoming U.S. troops and 15 percent of the U.S. armed forces, yet many Americans are unsure how to accept or view them, female veterans say. That applies to the job market, fueling a 19.9 percent unemployment rate among post-9/11 female veterans, while some VA hospitals seem unprepared to handle the heavy influx of women returning from war, contends a leading veterans group.

"I’m the first female veteran that a lot of people know personally, and I’m becoming more aware of this lack of understanding of who we are," said Weckerlein, who spent nine years in the Air Force. Now, 31, she is married with three children and, as an Air Force reservist, she also works part-time at the Pentagon. "There is no real example in society of a female veteran. In Hollywood, there's just the 'GI Jane' version – you know, like Demi Moore shaving her head. But that’s about it.

Jim Varhegyi

Julie Weckerlein waits for the all-clear in a shelter during a 2007 mortar attack at a U.S. post south of Baghdad. A moment after this photo was snapped, Weckerlein and others heard the radio call go out for a chaplain. A female sergeant was killed in the explosion.

"We are a normal family. My husband is addicted to (the TV series) 'Pawn Stars.' My 9-year-old and I, we struggle with homework. I struggle with DC life and the commute. This is a female veteran." 

Last week, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a nonpartisan and nonprofit group with more than 200,000 members, called on President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney to cast at least some of their attention on the mounting and - as IAVA sees it - unaddressed needs afflicting female veterans. That heightened focus, IAVA said, should begin with how the Department of Veterans Affairs provides health care to female ex-service members. 

"There aren’t enough female health professionals in the VA system. There aren’t enough folks specialized in female health, especially around reproductive health. We’ve got to push the system to work harder for them," said Paul Rieckhoff, chief executive officer and founder of IAVA

"The bottom line is you need someone who recognizes that female veterans are a critical part of this population and that they have unique needs," added Rieckhoff, who served as a first lieutenant and infantry rifle platoon leader in Iraq during 2003 and 2004. "We’ve got women on our staff who say that a lot of times, when they walk into the VA, they get treated like a candy striper instead of like a returning warrior. As a country, we've got to go through a huge cultural shift." 

VA officials maintain, however, that their agency has launched multiple initiatives to cater to the rising number of female veterans using its hospitals. Last Friday, NBC News asked a VA spokesman to lay out some of those programs. On Wednesday, that spokesman emailed NBC News a series of Internet links describing the strategies, adding: "Nearly all of these programs are new in the past few years (2-4 years), and some have simply been enhanced. Of course, women vets are eligible for VA programs just as males would be too."

For example, the VA's Women Health Services "addresses the health care needs of women Veterans and works to ensure that timely, equitable, high-quality, comprehensive health care services are provided in a sensitive and safe environment at VA health facilities nationwide," says the VA website. "We strive to be a national leader in the provision of health care for women, thereby raising the standard of care for all women."

In 2007, the VA broadened the scope of Women Health Services to include the use of mammography machines, ultrasound and biopsy equipment, the VA reports.

'Didn't know what to do with me'
But Air Force veteran Terri Kaas, 29, said that after being seen at two VA hospitals near her home in Pasco, Wash., for knee problems she said were sustained during overseas service, she felt the staff at those VA facilities "didn't know what do with me." Kaas, who received a 20 percent disability rating after leaving the Air Force, said the VA also recently admitted to her that it had lost her medical records, leaving her pension and disability package pending, and allowing her to use VA facilities to receive only "some care that's service related."

courtesy of Terri Kaas

Terri Kass, an Air Force Veteran who lives in Washington State, has been job hunting for a year since leaving the military. She has more than 100 rejection letters to show for her effort.

When she did go in for treatment, Kaas described the VA visits this way: "Here you have a young woman – who is not old – who mostly likely will have another child or two. But I think they’re always amazed to see me. They’re like, 'Oh, is your husband here?' I’m like, 'No, it’s me. You're seeing me.' I’m used to being the only female in the lobby."

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Kaas, who served for 10 years, spending time in Bahrain and Germany, also has been snared by the second critical pitfall facing one in five post-9/11-female veterans: unemployment. She said she has more than 100 rejection letters to show for her job hunt during the past year. More troubling, she said, numerous hiring managers have asked if she is "service disabled." 

"Every job I've applied for that required both my resume and their corporate application asked that question. Are we discriminating against our wounded warriors? Starbucks, Walmart, Macy's, Amazon, Target, and Lockheed Martin are just a few who asked," Kaas posted on Facebook. Amid looking for work, she is attending college with hopes of becoming a math or science teacher. 

"That question astounds me - and it's always the follow-up question to: Are you a veteran?" Kaas said in a phone interview. "If Walmart won’t hire me at Christmas, when they're advertising, I kind of wonder what the reason is. I’m not trying to dime out Walmart. I’ve applied for work at many major department stores. But when I can’t get work at Walmart, I wonder: Why not? There’s other people getting hired there during the holidays."

The disability question, Kaas suspects, is asked because some hiring managers "assume that most veterans have PTSD."

"I don't know if it's legal to ask that but it certainly doesn't seem appropriate," said John E. Pickens III, executive director of VeteransPlus, a nonprofit that has offered financial counseling to more than 150,000 current and former service members. He agrees that such a query by hiring managers "is being driven by mental health concerns."

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Said Walmart spokeswoman Tara Raddohl: "That question is not standard practice or a part of our company interview process. We’re looking into this specifically" (at the Walmart store where Kaas applied for a job).

A number of Pickens' female-veteran clients have told him that although they served in war zones, they don't seem to earn the same level of prestige - or employability - as do U.S. male combat veterans, "and they don't carry home that same mantel as a warrior."

'Hey, I'm a female veteran'
Yet many carry home combat tales equally as harrowing as those being told by male veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Just ask Julie Weckerlein. 

Courtesy of Julie Weckerlein

Veteran Julie Weckerlein and her husband, Martin. After nine years of active duty in the Air Force, she now works at the Pentagon.

After the insurgent shell detonated at the coalition base in Nasir Lafitah, Iraq, Weckerlein didn't know the name of the casualty - Trista Morietti, 27 - until she returned to her own post in Baghdad and read the incident report. Several U.S. service members were wounded as well when that mortar round landed on a sleeping quarters just a few yards from Weckerlein's position. 

"I also spent a lot of time reading up all the hometown articles and blogs her friends wrote about her. Hers was the first death I experienced on my deployment, and that she was also a 20-something female NCO really affected me," Weckerlein said. "I felt so sick for the family members back in the states who had no idea what was going on at that moment. Later, actually seeing those family members and their pain ... it tore out my heart.

"I think of all the awesome women who served alongside me, who are struggling to find work, and it just baffles me because they are so qualified," she added. "It just motivates me to want to go out there and say, 'Hey, I’m a female veteran.' "

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