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End harassment at VA hospitals

End harassment at VA hospitals
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When I ran the VA’s Center for Women Veterans, one of my highest priorities was changing the culture throughout the organization to be more welcoming of women veterans, who make up a small but rapidly growing percentage of our nation’s veterans. That work is deeply necessary: Alarming research by the department found that one in four women veterans using VA health care “reported inappropriate and/or unwanted comments or behavior by male veterans on VA grounds.” Unsurprisingly, women who experienced that harassment were less likely to feel welcome, which could lead to them delaying or missing needed care. Just like in the military, younger women are at higher risk of experiencing that harassment.

Based on that research, VA established a national workgroup to identify effective programs from other settings and pilot interventions to end harassment; I was proud to play a small role on it. The ongoing need for this vital work was driven home when a senior policy adviser on issues affecting women veterans who works on Capitol Hill reported being assaulted at the D.C. VA just last month, drawing additional attention from lawmakers and the public about the extent of the problem and urgency of continuing to address it vigorously.

All veterans deserve to be treated with dignity and respect when they seek health care at VA medical centers. The End Harassment campaign launched by VA is one important component of ensuring men seeking care understand what types of behavior are not acceptable, that women veterans know they can report being treated inappropriately, and that VA employees have been trained on what steps they can take to intervene effectively.

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It’s also important that this campaign be aligned with other supportive policies and procedures, such as setting and enforcing clear standards on what is acceptable from visiting organizations — regardless of pushback or statements of good intention.

Recently, an organization called Pin-Ups for Vets posted a call on Facebook urging their supporters to complain that they had been denied access to the San Diego VA medical center. Pin-Ups for Vets volunteers make “personal bedside visits to deliver gifts,” including their glamour girl pin-up calendar, to hospitalized, usually elderly, male veterans while dressed in fitted 1940s garb. The visit denial was reportedly due in part to concerns about women veteran patients being cat-called. Though the organization wrote, “This premise is very insulting to male Veterans,” it is not merely a “premise” that women are harassed by their fellow veterans at VA facilities: It’s well-documented. Women experience notoriously high rates of harassment and assault while they serve in the military; unfortunately, that pattern of unacceptable behavior can persist.

The story was picked up by the Washington Examiner, which then reported on VA’s confused response, initially authorizing the visit and then clarifying that participants would have to adhere to certain standards. The response should be clear, coherent, and consistent across VA facilities: Organizations that objectify women and reinforce sexist stereotypes with their attire or merchandise are not welcome.

I do not come to this opinion lightly.

Having met Pin-Ups for Vets founder Gina Elise personally, I found her warm and personable and think she truly believes she is serving the best interest of veterans. Many veterans have undoubtedly enjoyed the visits. However, there are many things I find enjoyable but do not believe belong in a hospital.

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Similarly, while I may find the images in this calendar of Australian firefighters posing with animals visually appealing, I would never dream of hanging it in my office: It is inappropriate and could be seen as contributing to a hostile work environment for my colleagues.

The presence of Pin-Ups for Vets volunteers and their merchandise could also be misaligned with VA’s policy prohibiting gender harassment and seeking to uphold best practices for employee equity, diversity, and inclusion. This is of particular concern as health care workers nationwide are sounding the alarm on sexual harassment in healthcare and dangerous patient behavior: The healthcare environment should maximize safety and dignity for all.

While deliberating whether to weigh in on this topic, I reached out to my closest women veteran friends for a gut check. Was I being a prude, or engaging in body shaming? Many of the women engaging in these visits are women veterans themselves; should I be cheering their volunteerism and body positivity despite my discomfort?

Responses were swift and consistent. Heather noted, “It’s not about them being harassed, it’s about creating a culture where ogling over women is acceptable… by VA allowing these women in they are saying it’s ok to ogle these women but not these other women — now you have to figure out which is which.”

Rachel wrote that she “can’t fathom how these women are so out of touch with the zeitgeist that they were blindsided by the decision to ban them … from a place where their sisters-in-arms go to seek harassment-free medical care.”

Jen jumped in with, “as a queer woman I am all for appreciating the female form. But not where I get my health care. Good for those women in finding empowerment through their bodies, but their presence does nothing to add to the healthcare setting and makes me uncomfortable.”

All the women circled back to the importance of context: There is a time and place for many things — and Wendy cautioned that she is already “very uncomfortable in VA hospitals and pin-up girls set the tone for ogling not equality.”

Danielle Applegate, another former Center for Women Vets employee who remains committed to fostering equal and harassment-free access to care at the VAMCs for women veterans as Vice President of VetsFirst, offered a similar perspective: "Glorifying beauty and form in nostalgic form from the 1940s, a time when women had little traction outside the home, is not my idea of supporting a harassment-free environment, especially in a medical setting. Hard work has been done to empower women veterans to access the benefits and services they've earned, and this effort seems to be a step in the wrong direction through promoting highly-sexualized stereotypes."

I recognize that these anecdotes do not represent all veterans or even all women veterans; the organization has vocal fans, including veterans, who are well-represented in responses to their social media posts.

Despite the public outcry this decision may cause, however, VA should remain resolute. Within the VA, and particularly throughout its widely diverse medical centers across the country, uniformity of messaging is critical to creating clear boundaries and guidelines for acceptable behavior. Giving any organization that promotes the sale of sexualized products, whether they do so using women veterans or not, the implicit support of a government agency through access to their facilities is a step backwards, not forwards.

The time has come to focus on ensuring that all of those “who shall have borne the battle” feel welcome — as equals.

Kayla Williams is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. She previously served two years as Director of the Center for Women Veterans at the Department of Veterans Affairs, serving as primary advisor to the Secretary on policies, programs and legislation affecting women veterans. Prior to that, she worked at the RAND Corporation, where she did research related to veteran health needs and benefits, international security and intelligence policy. She is the author of “Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army,” a memoir of her deployment to Iraq.