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The New VA Study on Women Vietnam Veterans

BY CLAUDIA GARY

“This is one of the most, if not the most comprehensive study of any female veteran population that has ever been done,” said Joan Furey, the founding director of the VA Center for Women Veterans. “There has never been any study of the long-term consequences on women who served in a war zone.” Now retired from the Department of Veterans Affairs, Furey has agreed to serve as a consultant on a major four-year study of women Vietnam veterans—a study she helped develop and the VA officially announced last November.

Furey, a VVA life member, joined the Army Nurse Corps in June 1968 and served as a staff nurse with the 71st Evacuation Hospital in Pleiku from January 1969-70. After returning to school for a B.A. and Master’s degree in Nursing, she worked for the VA for 30 years. In 1992, Furey founded the first PTSD inpatient treatment program for women veterans at the VA in Menlo Park, Calif. “There had been [PTSD] programs for male veterans since 1975,” she noted.

“I think, over the years, women Vietnam veterans generally have been concerned about what they felt was a lack of research into their health status, compared to the studies being done on men,” Furey said. With this study, the VA seems to be catching up.

“One of my top priorities is to meet the needs of women veterans,” VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki said in a November 2009 press release. “Our veterans have earned the very best care. VA realizes that women veterans require specialized programs, and this study will help VA provide high-quality care for women veterans of the Vietnam era.” Stating that “it is important to understand the impact of wartime deployment on health and mental outcomes nearly 40 years later,” the press release describes women veterans as “one of the fastest growing segments of the veteran population.”

The new study focuses on women who served either in or near a war zone. “VA will study women Vietnam veterans who may have had direct exposure to traumatic events and, for the first time, study those who served in facilities near Vietnam,” the VA said. “These women may have had similar, but less direct, exposures.”

Furey agreed that, even now, the study can help women Vietnam veterans in significant ways: “Women Vietnam veterans are now at retirement age, the age where people start to have chronic health problems,” she said. “This can inform people who provide health care to these women, and the women themselves, if they are at risk for illnesses that they were not aware of, just as with men.”

Aside from long-term psychiatric effects, the study will consider autoimmune disorders, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other illnesses. Results, Furey said, will be “shared throughout the health care community, both inside and outside the VA.” In addition, if the study reveals new service-related conditions, “it may open up benefits that [women veterans] could apply for and utilize.”

A BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF WAR’S HEALTH EFFECTS

“For women veterans in general,” Furey said, “this will give us a much better picture of women who have been exposed to war-zone situations, some of which are specific to Vietnam but others not.” Although there may not be a cumulative effect, she pointed out that “if there is, this can help to develop programs for the younger generation of women veterans.”

Furey will be working with the team of VA researchers who launched the study. The team is co-chaired by Kathryn Magruder, Ph.D., an epidemiologist at the Charleston, S.C., VA Medical Center; Amy Kilbourne, Ph.D., a mental health researcher for VA in Ann Arbor; and Han Kang, Dr.Ph., who directs VA’s Environmental Epidemiology Service and the War-Related Illness and Injury Study Center in Washington, D.C.

According to the December 2009 issue of VA Research Currents: “About 8,000 of the women VA expects to enroll in the new study were part of earlier research by Kang on birth outcomes. That study, published in 2000, found higher rates of birth defects in the children of women who had served in Vietnam compared with those who had served elsewhere. The causes for the increased risk remain unknown, but researchers believe they may include exposures to herbicides such as Agent Orange.” One factor that is expected to help is that most of the prospective study participants are nurses who have experience in reporting health conditions.

The study officially began in November and is expected to last four years, with a budget of $5.6 million. It is being managed by the VA’s Cooperative Studies Program. During 2010, the VA will be contacting some 10,000 women in mailed surveys, telephone interviews, and reviews of their medical records.

IF THE VA COMES CALLING

When asked what will be involved for those who participate, Furey indicated that there are few, if any, drawbacks. First, she said, “It’s a confidential study and no one will be able to be identified individually.” As for the questions, “They will be asking people to talk about their current and lifetime conditions, both physical and mental. They’ll need to look at the health records to validate those conditions,” as well as military records to validate dates and locations of service.

“Talking about these things can bring up some bad memories and be a little disruptive,” Furey said, “but I think generally if someone is comfortable talking about her past and current medical history, she should be okay participating in it. There are no physically invasive procedures. It’s really just discussion, questionnaires, and sharing personal experiences both in and since Vietnam, as well as personal health history.”

Marsha Four, who has served on VVA’s National Board of Directors and chaired the National Women Veterans Committee since 1997, expressed great enthusiasm for the VA’s study. “We as women Vietnam veterans have been waiting for something like this for a very long time,” she said. “What I’m hoping is that because of that issue alone, [the VA is] going to find a large number of women who would like to be a part of the study.”

Four, who served as an Army RN at the 18th Surgical Hospital at Camp Events and Quang Tri from 1968-70, also served from 1992-94 and 2000-06 on the VA’s Advisory Committee on Women Veterans. Additionally, she chaired the committee from 2002-06. “The women of the Vietnam era did not give up on the fact that they thought there should be a study,” she said. “They kept pushing forward on it, kept advocating for it, and finally it was seen by the VA as something that would be of great value. It’s about justice, in a way, and also tenacity.”

Reflecting on women’s participation in war throughout the ages, Four added: “This is really [based on] the effort of all women veterans, not just Vietnam veterans. As the new women veterans come on board, we will be passing the torch to them. This is something that started during the Revolutionary War.”

 

 

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