Key Takeaways

  • A recent survey conducted by the VA Center for Women Veterans found women Veterans age 50+ are the least likely group to use their earned benefits. 

  • Community providers and partners can work with VA, County Veteran Service Officers, and Veteran Service Organizations to better understand VA benefits.

  • Screening women in the private sector to identify Veteran status can connect them with additional resources that lead to improved health and financial security.

In 2021 the VA Center for Women Veterans (CWV) asked themselves two questions: Who are the women Veterans not applying for benefits and services, and why? These questions came as the Center was strategizing on how to improve outreach approaches to best reach the most underserved populations.

Here is what the Center already knew about women Veterans:

  • The median age of women Veterans today is 51 compared to male Veterans at 65.
  • Collectively, women Veterans age 45 and up are the largest single demographic in the women Veteran population
  • Of the nearly 2 million women Veterans, approximately 800,000 (40%) are enrolled with VA Healthcare System, but just over 50% have not accessed their disability benefits, and only 28% have used their mortgage benefits. Among this group, 51% are in the age group 45 - 75.1

This left us with “Why?” Who were the other of those not applying, and why were they not applying or using what they deserved and had earned through their service in the U.S. military?

As part of the survey, CWV also wanted to understand if military sexual trauma (MST) would correlate to women Veterans applying or not applying for benefits, so along with questions about belief-related to eligibility, CWV asked about MST. 

Invisible women Veterans: A history of reluctance

Women Veterans have, over the years, not identified as Veterans as often or as much as their male counterparts, although this has begun to change. The reasons include social structure, culture, and the way women’s military service has been seen or dismissed over the generations. Women have served since the American Revolution, but little has been said of their service, and too often, that service has gone without the same public recognition earned by their brothers. Thus, women, especially older women, have historically been hesitant to discuss their service and call themselves Veterans.

For instance, of the more than 50,000 women who served in Korea and 265,000 who served during the Vietnam War (11,000 of them in Vietnam), little is known or said. Many may not claim their Veteran status or acknowledge the disabilities, injuries, and illnesses they experienced from their service. When people think of women and Veteran in the same sentence, it is not likely these women come to mind; yet today the median age of Korean War Veterans is 81, and 68 for Vietnam Veterans.

Their conditions may include:

It is possible they also experienced military sexual trauma they have never discussed or for which they never received treatment and/or benefits.

How older women Veterans can learn more about VA benefits

During the first and second quarter, results of the CWV Survey, the largest subset of women Veterans (1,139) who stated they do not have compensation benefits, were women age 50+, all Veteran and Retired Military.  Of this group, 854 stated they have never used any benefits, 499 stating they did not know they are eligible, 201 stated they were not found eligible, and 190 stated they have not had the time to look into benefits. Only 32 stated they did not wish to apply. All 1,139 women stated they have military sexual trauma.

Some of the statement’s women gave about why they have not applied for benefits:

  • “I have healthcare benefits through my employer.”
  • “Tried to do it online and found out that I couldn't go back to correct a screen. Guess I need to find a physical location and try again because I really want to get into the VA system.”
  • “I am on SSDI since 1999 and have Medicare Advantage Plan with Medicare Parts A & B.”
  • “I don’t need to apply for benefits, I have my husband’s.”

Susan B. Anthony famously said, “Every woman must have a purse of her own.” Even if her husband has benefits, a woman Veteran is deserving of her own.

At age 65, women Veterans begin to see a decline in income. This may be a result of retirement, but further declines may be a spouse’s death or depletion of retirement plans and savings. If she is already living at or near poverty (for example, on SSDI) one source of income that can boost her income and remain steady is the tax-free VA compensation benefit paid for service-connected disability benefits.

Employer health insurance provided is an out-of-pocket expense. A service-connected rating of 50% or higher entitles a Veteran to 100% health coverage at a VA medical facility, thus saving them the monthly expense of paying for health insurance.

Should you choose VA benefits over Medicare?

Why have VA benefits even though you have Medicare? Even if you have less than a 50% service connection, you have coverage for your disability, and the rest of your care may be covered or partially covered based on your income. VA works with Medicare and, based on your income and what’s covered under your VA disability rating, you may find you can revisit your Medicare supplements, thus saving money out of pocket. A VA enrollment specialist or the VA website can help you learn more.

Compensation benefits are tax free income. This is beneficial to you even while you are earning an income, when you retire, and especially if you have a low income. Adding that extra VA compensation amount to your monthly income increases your financial security.

VA offers a myriad of specialty services for their aging Veterans, but too often women Veterans especially are unaware of these benefits, which include:

  • Veterans Homes
  • Aid and Attendance and Housebound
  • Geriatric and Long-Term Care programs
  • Homebased and Community Services

How can I help connect women Veterans with benefits and services?

As partners and providers, you play an important role. As the CWV Study showed, too many aging women Veterans simply do not know they are eligible for VA benefits, or they just are not applying for their earned benefits, thus leaving money and services on the table.

How can you help? As health, social service, and community providers, begin asking women who come into your agency if they served in the military. If your current question is “Are you a Veteran?” change the question to “Did you serve in the military?” It’s been found that by simply changing the question, more women are likely to answer yes. Adding this screening can help you identify women Veterans.

Show women Veterans you see them and acknowledge their service. If you have images of Veterans or service members in your building or office, be sure they include women.

Learn the resources that serve Veterans in your area, especially if any are any women Veteran focused. Once you know the resources, you can make referrals.

Filing a claim can be daunting, especially for those who have military sexual trauma, PTSD, or other mental health disorders or have previously filed a claim and been denied. Within the past decade, Veteran Benefits Administration (VBA) has made great strides in improving their claims process. Recent VBA numbers from 2018 – 2022 show that of claims filed, 83% were granted for women Veterans and 80% for men. For MST claims, 81% were granted for women and 71% for men.2 One study found that promoting women’s early use of Veteran Service Officers, whose role is to support Veterans in their disability application process, may minimize claim appeal fatigue.3

Find out who your local Veteran service officers are, and be ready to provide them as resources. Additionally, filing claims can be emotionally and mentally difficult. Be prepared to offer them mental health resources as well. You can find resources about MST, elder care, reserach and more on the Center for Women Veterans website,  www.va.gov/womenvet/.

Together, we can support women veterans in increasing their financial and health security, helping them age with the dignity of a warrior whose time it is to stand down and know that the community has her six.

NCOA hosts the annual Older Adult Mental Health Awareness Day to highlight critical issues in addressing mental health needs as we age. 

This article is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $5 million with 100% funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.

Sources

1. Characteristics of Female Veterans—An Analytic View Across Age-Cohorts: 2015. U.S. Census Bureau. August 2017. Found on the internet at https://www.census.gov/library/publications/2017/acs/acsbr15-03.html

2. Detailed Claims Data—Veterans Benefits Administration Reports. U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Found on the internet at https://www.benefits.va.gov/reports/detailed_claims_data.asp

3. Chrystal, Joya & Frayne, Susan & Dyer, Karen & Moreau, Jessica & Gammage, Cynthia & Saechao, Fay & Berg, Eric & Washington, Donna & Yano, Elizabeth & Hamilton, Alison. (2021). Women Veterans' Attrition from the VA Health Care System. Women's Health Issues. 32. 10.1016/j.whi.2021.11.011. Found on the internet at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34972600/