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Women Vets Seek Safe Space For Care After Flood At Manchester VA

Peter Biello
Veteran Cindy McGuirk speaks up for women veterans at a town hall meeting addressing concerns about the Manchester VA on July 31, 2017.

When a pipe burst at the Manchester VA Medical Center last July, the ensuing flood ruined spaces where veterans meet their doctors. One of those spaces was dedicated to women's health. Now, as the VA rebuilds itself, some see an opportunity to improve the experience for women veterans.
Before July's flood, to get to the women's health clinic at the Manchester VA, women needed to walk through the front door, climb a flight of stairs to the elevator, and ride it up to the sixth floor.

Veteran Cindy McGuirk hated that elevator ride. "Because I always get pushed back and then they all start talking. 'Hi, how you doing?' And i know they mean well, but I need to get the hell out of there," she says.

McGuirk has PTSD. When she was in the Army during desert storm, she says she was repeatedly gang-raped by male soldiers. So being in a tight little space with men is stressful, to say the least.

"So I stop the elevator and I take the stairs because I can't handle it," she says.

On the sixth floor, the space reserved for women was really small—like a closet, McGuirk says. "I mean essentially it's this little room. It has two exam rooms, the nurse's office, and then the secretary," she says.

McGuirk says this is not acceptable. She says women need a bigger space with a separate entrance, so other women who have experienced military sexual trauma can avoid stressful encounters with men.

"Because we're just as important as all the other veterans. But we're not treated that way."

The flood wiped out the Manchester VA women's clinic on the sixth floor. For now, women receive their care on the first floor—with men.

Laura Caisse is the Women Veterans Program Manager at the Manchester VA. She says the women's clinic will be redesigned.

"The clinic now will have a complete separate waiting room that is not impacted in the hallway. They will have a complete separate waiting room to come into. They can feel that their care is sensitive and private."

But it'll still be on the sixth floor, with no separate entrance from the outside. The work-around, Caisse says, is that women who feel uncomfortable can ask for a VA escort.

That's not enough, says Democratic Congresswoman Annie Kuster. She wants a separate entrance for women vets, like the one at the VA in White River Junction, Vermont.

"I think Manchester has fallen behind the times, frankly, and this is an opportunity. Certainly I can tell you that you'll have the strong support from the federal delegation to back you up with that," Kuster said recently at a field hearing looking at recent failures of leadership at the Manchester VA. Kuster says that support includes additional funding if necessary.

Fewer than half of all VA Medical Centers in the country have a free-standing women's clinic. Patty Hayes, Chief Consultant in Women’s Health Services for the Veterans Health Administration, oversees women's healthcare at the VA. She says not all women want to be separate.

"They don't want to be seen as that different," Hayes says. "They will tell me things like: 'A soldier is a soldier is a soldier. I just want my healthcare from someone who knows how to take care of me.'"

Hayes says women need to have a choice. Right now the Manchester VA does not have plans for a free-standing women's clinic.

Of course, physical space at the VA is just part of the healthcare picture for women vets. Legislation co-introduced earlier this year by Senator Maggie Hassan aims to enhance care for women veterans by expanding peer-to-peer counseling for victims of sexual assault and enhancing maternity care. That bill is currently stalled.

Right now the Manchester VA is rebuilding the women's clinic. Officials say is scheduled to re-open in early November. 

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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