Most female veterans have an identity problem -- they don't refer to themselves as veterans.
And that, said Patricia Hayes, a top official with the Veterans Health Administration, may be why so few of them know about or seek care from her agency, which has an array of health care and social services geared to women.
"Women don't talk of themselves as vets. It's striking how that's the case, over and over again," said Ms. Hayes, chief consultant of women's health services in Washington, D.C., speaking at a conference Saturday in Oakland for female vets.
The Town Hall Meeting was sponsored by the Allegheny County Division of Veterans Services at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall to serve 7,200 women vets in the county.
To be sure, the number of women veterans seeking care from the VHA has nearly doubled in the past decade, from 175,698 to 316,903 in 2010, the last year statistics were available, Ms. Hayes said. That figure is expected to double again -- in the next two to three years.
The age demographic for women veterans receiving disability ratings has gotten younger. But not enough of this population know what a broad array of services are available to them -- whether they are struggling with health-care issues, homelessness, unemployment or other issues.
Ms. Hayes has a home in Pittsburgh but has worked in D.C. for the past seven years. Her job, she says, has been to help change the culture. She noted that federal budget cuts, funding for female veterans' health programs has increased by 30 percent in recent years.
Lt. Col. Michele Papakie, inspector general at the 171st Air Refueling Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard, described a friend who recently spent an hour and a half in an empty doctor's office, waiting for her prescription -- even as a staffer kept opening the door and looking around curiously. Finally, Lt. Papakie's friend approached the staffer and asked about her prescription.
"I thought this was for Mr. Conner," the staffer said. "He's the veteran, isn't he?"
This sort of attitude is changing, said Lt. Papakie, a 26-year veteran, noting that she was sent to Afghanistan to serve as the sexual assault prevention and response manager in 2010.
But women veterans "need to speak out more and tell people what we need," she said.
Joyce Maciak, 54, of Sharpsburg said she came out to the conference because she needs help filing a disability claim, after serving in the Air Force in the 1980s for 31???2 years.
"This is the first women's event I've ever been to. It's a start," she said.
Mackenzie Carpenter: firstname.lastname@example.org