It's been two years since an unarmed man, 25-year-old Bijan Ghaisar, was shot and killed by police in Fairfax County. Kojo sits down with Bijan's family to discuss their quest for answers.
More women serve in the military than ever before, and make up 10% of veterans. But for many women, identifying as a veteran in a male dominated space is difficult, especially if they experienced sexual trauma while serving on active duty.
A Department of Veterans Affairs study released in February found that one in four women veterans who visited a VA facility experienced inappropriate behavior or sexual harassment from other patients and staff, a significant barrier to care for women veterans.
An incident at the D.C. VA Medical Center prompted the House Committee on Veterans Affairs to call for an immediate implementation of a Department-wide anti-sexual harassment and assault policy.
Chairman Mark Takano, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and Committee Staffer Andrea Goldstein join Kojo to discuss issues facing women veterans in the region.
Produced by Victoria Chamberlin
- Mark Takano Chairman, House Committee on Veterans' Affairs
- Col. Don Christensen USAF (ret.) President, Protect Our Defenders
- Andrea Goldstein Senior Policy Advisor, Women Veterans Task Force, House Committee for Veterans' Affairs
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tune in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast a new book examines the resilience of families coping with Alzheimer's. But first think of a prototypical veteran in your head. Are you picturing a man maybe getting along in age wearing an American flag on his cap? These kinds of cultural stereotypes make it harder for women to raise their hands and identify as veterans, and the challenges they face are different than their male counterparts. In September Navy veteran and House of Representatives staffer, Andrea Goldstein said she was assaulted at the VA Medical Center here in Washington D.C.
KOJO NNAMDIA study released in February showed that one in four women experience inappropriate behavior from staff and other patients at VA medical facilities, a place where they should feel the most support. The House Committee for Veterans' Affairs is calling for a culture change that will help remove this barrier to care. Joining me in studio is Representative Mark Takano. He is a congressman from California's 41st district also Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. Congressman Takano, thank you for joining us.
MARK TAKANOMy pleasure.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Andrea Goldstein, Senior Policy Advisor on the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. Thank you so much for joining us.
ANDREA GOLDSTEINThanks for having me.
NNAMDIAnd Colonel Don Christensen is a retired Air Force Colonel and the President of Protect Our Defenders. Colonel Christensen, thank you.
COL. DON CHRISTENSEN USAFThank you.
NNAMDIAndrea, you're a Navy veteran. You've studied and published work on gender relations and politics in the military. So why is it harder for women to be recognized or identified as veterans than it is for men?
GOLDSTEINWell, women have served in the U.S. military since the American Revolution. There are two women, Deborah Sampson and Margaret Corbin, who served in the revolution and were granted pensions by Congress for their service. Yet the long history of women's military service has been long forgotten and erased. And that is part of why the cultural conception of what a veteran is has forgotten women from that narrative.
NNAMDIAs a result of which, women when they walk into a VA medical facility are not necessarily instantly recognized as veterans. There's often, I guess the assumption that they're something else.
GOLDSTEINCorrect. So oftentimes the assumption is that you're someone's caregiver or someone's spouse, someone's daughter, not the veteran yourself.
NNAMDII have read where women who went into VA medical facilities have been asked to produce their husband's social security number, because the assumption is that they're representing a male. Could this make women less likely to seek care at the VA than their male counterparts?
GOLDSTEINIt can certainly be off-putting, especially because that's a continuation of some of the frustrations that women experience on active duty. The very first time I walked into a VA facility that was a question that I was asked is if I was there for myself or if I was there for my partner. Fortunately that was three years ago. And fortunately after that I received nothing, but good care at that facility and the facilities I went to after that.
NNAMDICongressman Takano, the number of women veterans is on the rise and has been for a while. How is the VA adjusting to the change in demographics?
TAKANOWell, that's precisely what I wanted to accomplish with my chairmanship is to position the VA to respond to its ever increasing diversity. We know that across all the services currently 17 percent of our service workforce or our current service member population is about -- women, 17 percent. If you take out the marines and you look at just who comprises the Air Force, who comprises the Army, who comprises the Navy it's more like 20 percent. If you look at whose attending our service academies that number reaches 30 percent. So we are going to see increasing numbers of our veteran population be women. And we're not just talking diversity in terms of gender. We're talking diversity in terms of the racial composition of our military.
TAKANOLGBT it's been about 10 years that "Don't Ask Don't Tell" was overturned. So it's been one of my important policy objectives to position the VA to be able to serve our diverse veteran population. And in this case we're especially looking at why women veterans are accessing their benefits at a lesser rate -- significant lesser rate than their male counterparts.
NNAMDIThe VA supported a study that was released in February that says one in four women experiences inappropriate behavior at a VA medical center. What kinds of behavior are women dealing with?
TAKANOWell, in many cases we'll have to -- the VA to their credit has established separate entrances for women. As Andrea spoke earlier women veterans often aren't immediately recognized as veterans. They're recognized as somebody else. They could be -- you know, as the spouse, the daughter or a caregiver. But rarely are they assumed to be actually the veterans themselves. And that's just the mindset at the VA. And so they could walk in the main entrance of the VA and be subject to catcalls, subject to various forms of harassment. And frankly in the case of Andrea subject to sexual assault. And this has simply got to end.
TAKANOWe have to change the mindset. We have to change the cultural. And the VA needs to change as a part of an overall effort to address the increasing numbers of women and the increasing numbers of minorities and people who are, you know, open about their sexual orientation.
NNAMDIAndrea Goldstein, can you describe the physical space in the D.C. facility and how it might be triggering particularly for victims of military sexual trauma to walk through the halls where men are gathered?
GOLDSTEINAbsolutely. So the -- first I want to talk about just some of the history, because you talked about the study that came out in February.
NNAMDIPlease do. Yeah.
GOLDSTEINSo that study came out. That study provided empirical evidence on what women veterans have been saying for a long time regarding disrespect toward them often by other veterans at VA facilities. And that something that was an issue nationwide. When I moved here earlier this year I had heard that the D.C. VA was one of the sites where that happens more frequently in the country. And I've been using that facility since March. This is the first time something like that happened, but I had been stared at every time I walked in. There are benches out front where veterans will stare at you as you walk in. The pharmacy in particular is a gathering place. There's just a very large atrium where a lot of veterans and staff and caregivers are gathered.
GOLDSTEINIf you go through the rest of the facility away from the women's clinic there are a lot of choke points where they'll be -- it sometimes feels like you're running the gauntlet being stared at. I've spoken to -- well before this incident happened -- a lot of women veterans who've been voicing their concerns about issues in this facility for years about being catcalled, heckled, wolf whistled. And what happened to me was really after several months of this committee working on the issue and after years of women veterans voicing their concerns.
NNAMDIColonel Don Christensen, you have been dealing with these kinds of issues when you were in the active military as a matter of fact, because you are a lawyer. Tell us a little more about what Andrea is talking about, because she mentioned things like catcalls. You can't be prosecuted for catcalling. But it is form of sexual harassment.
USAFRight. So sexual harassment is a huge problem in the active force and it's spilled over into the veteran community. We know from surveys of the active force that about 25 percent of active duty women are sexually harassed every year while they serve. And unfortunately in the military that's rarely ever handled. So what we have is all these people, who viewed sexual harassment as being appropriate and okay while they're in service now are veterans. And so when they see women like Andrea come into to a veteran's clinic they just continue that culture of treating women as objects versus as brothers and sisters in arms.
NNAMDIMen in groups, it's my understanding that the care at the VA medical facility here is pretty good.
GOLDSTEINThat's absolutely right. The care is absolutely fantastic. And I want to highlight in particular. So I have both VA care and I have private insurance through work. In July I had a health issue and I called both VA and I called private care. VA saw me the same day before the private provider even returned my call.
NNAMDIAndrea, it's important for our listeners to know that on September 20 as Congressman Takano referred to earlier, you reported a sexual assault that occurred at the D.C. VA Medical Center. You said that while waiting for a smoothie in the café another patient slammed his body into yours below the waist and pressed his entire body into yours while making harassing comments. You complained to staff members, but the police were not called until Andrea reached her doctor.
NNAMDIThe VA declined our invitation to the program, but sent the following statement. Quoting here, "These are serious allegations and VA is treating them as such. The department has turned the matter over to VA's independent inspector general and other law enforcement. And a criminal investigation is underway. VA will not tolerate this alleged behavior and we are committed to delivering justice. That's why in order to protect the integrity of the investigation we cannot comment further. VA recognizes that all veterans should feel safe and at home in VA facilities and that at times women veterans have experienced harassment by others. We are proud of our care for women veterans and are working to increase the trust and knowledge of VA services of women veterans so they just VA benefits and services."
NNAMDIThe VA also told us that they have launched an education campaign at all facilities to end sexual harassment and train staff to intervene. Andrea, are you satisfied with that response and the steps the VA says it has taken to address it?
GOLDSTEINNo. I'm not. And like we mentioned earlier this has been a priority of the committee from the very beginning. Back in May we held a hearing where we asked the VA questions about the widespread nature of sexual and gender harassment at VA where we learned that training is not mandatory for all employees regarding this issue. As a result, the chairman led a bi-partisan letter to VA asking them to do better. And the response was disappointing. As a result, the chairwomen of the Women's Veterans Task Force, Congresswomen Julia Brownley insisted that we introduce legislation to further address this issue, because posters are not policy. And the day of the incident I had come from a nine o'clock meeting with her where we had put the final touches on a bill to address this issue.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back we'll continue this conversation on women experiencing sexual harassment at VA medical facilities. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about women experiencing sexual harassment at the VA with Representative Mark Takano. He's a Congressman from California's 41st district. He's Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. Andrea Goldstein is a Senior Policy Advisor on the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. And Colonel Don Christensen is a retired Air Force Colonel and President of Protect Our Defenders. Here is Jen in Silver Spring, Maryland. Jen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JENHi, Kojo. I served in the United States Navy and I get seen at the Washington D.C. VA. More often than not I'm mistaken for staff, which ultimately isn't a problem. Often when we're called for appointments we're called by the "Mr." instead of "Ms." or "Mrs." and again that's not that big of a problem. We have had some incidences where even in the women's clinic men that are there to be seen for whatever reason in the women's clinic are often hostile to women. And I've never been sexually assaulted at the VA, but I've definitely been discriminated against.
NNAMDIHave you experienced sexual harassment at all?
JENI've seen sexual harassment. I've never experienced it myself.
NNAMDIOkay. Don Christensen, sexual assault is a criminal offense, but sexual harassment in the work place can be a form of employment discrimination. Legally how difficult is it to deal with sexual harassment in a federal facility?
USAFWell, it's really tough especially when the sexual harassment is coming from patients rather than employees. Employees you could fire, reprimand, punish. But for somebody to come in and sexually harass, I'm unaware of any federal law that would make that a crime for a veteran to harass another veteran. And, you know, it just speaks to how we have to have the culture fix. And I think one of the things Andrea's case shows is that the VA employees have to respond when they see it and hold the people that are doing it accountable by forcing them out of the clinic.
NNAMDII was about to ask what are the most effective ways to counteract the culture that allows this kind of behavior to persist?
USAFWell, I think it's got to start with active force. We have to understand that everybody, who is a veteran came from the active force. And if the active force allows sexual harassment it's just going to spill over to the veteran community. And if we ever want to change the way the veterans treat their fellow veterans we have to make sure that when they are actively serving they understand that not only is this a culture issue, but it's a matter of national security that we have both men and women trusting each other when they're serving.
NNAMDICongressman Takano, is there currently a standard in place for how each VA medical facility in the country handles sexual harassment?
TAKANOI don't know if there's a national standard. No. And precisely Ms. Brownley's bill, Julia Brownley's bill would, you know, address this issue along with making sure that there is annual reporting on training levels. As Andrea said earlier in response to our May hearing and our do better letter that Chairman Row and I both signed asking the VA to do better. The VA could not say that every one of their employees had been trained. They're not actually giving us any numbers, which makes me think that the number of employees that have been trained is far from acceptable. Training is a difficult thing. I was trustee at a community college district -- a public community college district in California. And I can tell you one of my biggest headaches as a trustee was the liability accruing from sexual harassment that was occurring with our professors and some of our students.
TAKANOAnd getting our professors and our staff trained was a major challenge. It's an employment contract. It's the ask of negotiating those contracts. So, you know, I understand the challenge from a management point of view. However, this is something we must deal with. And the fact that, you know, we're seeing one out of every five of enlisted members of our armed forces are women now, 30 percent of our future executive level officers in the military are going to be women, we have to change the mindset. Changing mindset is not easy. It is a cultural shift that has to happen. And the institutional strategies, you know, they're going to have to be creative. But they're going to have to be intensive and nonstop.
TAKANOI was therefore disappointed that the secretary -- Secretary Wilky -- and acting under-secretary Stone, Dr. Stone, did not reach out, call. Neither of them have called me about this incident, which I consider very serious, the incident with Andrea Goldstein being sexually assaulted at the Washington D.C. VA. Nor did they reach out to her. And they simply cannot hide behind the idea that they would compromise an investigation by the OIG or criminal investigation. We notified them several days in advance of my press conference at the Washington D.C. VA. And the response has been silence. It's been a clear distancing of the top level management. This is clearly not the kind of leadership that's necessary to change a mindset of, you know, the hundreds of VA medical centers across the country. So when you ask me if there's standard, no.
TAKANOAnd there's certainly not a sense of urgency coming from the top levels of management at the VA. Let me also say that when I arrived at the VA, you know, they did not want me to go through the front entrance. They wanted me to go through the side entrance. They did want me to see the kind of general climate that exists and could exist.
NNAMDISo they were acting as if they had something to hide.
TAKANOThey were -- yes. I would say that. And they were also trying to, you know, they made it very difficult first to even have the news conference. I would have expected them to actually be there by my side to say, we take this seriously. We are ashamed that this happened. And we are going to do everything possible to change the mindset here at the VA.
NNAMDIHere is Denise in La Plata. Denise, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DENISEHi, Kojo. Thank you for taking my call. I absolutely agree with Andrea and with the harassment and the craziness that goes on at the D.C. VA. And there was another caller -- one of you said earlier that the problem needs to start with the active duty forces. And to get that handled at that end. But I don't know. I spent 24 and a half years in the Air Force active duty. I'm retired now. But the majority of my harassment -- sexual harassment, catcalls, everything from folks following me from outside by the bus stop where a lot of the veterans sit out there and smoke to people hanging outside the women's bathroom right there in the atrium.
NNAMDIYou seem to be suggesting that you've experienced more harassment since you left the military than in the 24 years that you were there.
DENISEAbsolutely correct. Absolutely correct. And I don't believe that the VA is doing enough to address this issue. A small incident now I'll mention with you is there are a lot of groups focused on trauma. But the majority of those groups are mixed gender groups. And when we have addressed, myself and other female veterans have addressed the need for women only groups the responses that I've got is -- has always been there are not a lot of women taken advantage of the groups. And the reason why a lot of women don't take advantage of the groups is because it's so difficult. It is really traumatic to actually come down to the VA and get an appointment, because you are harassed so bad.
NNAMDIYou have to go through that again. Thank you very much for sharing that story with us, Denise. Don Christensen, data shows a 38 percent increase in reports of unwanted sexual contact across all branches of the active duty military compared with 2016. And I guess does not necessarily reflect our last caller's experience. But how do you think the culture of active duty surrounding issues of gender carries over into veteran life?
USAFWell, I definitely think it carries over. We got two issues. Number one a lot of our veterans that are going to the VA served in the military that may have been two or three percent women. And so their experience with fellow women veterans is pretty limited. But the other part of it is that since women have become an increasingly large percentage of the military they also have increasingly a large target for sexual assault. For women, the sexual assault rates are virtually unchanged since 2006. That's despite Congress having put millions of dollars into fighting this and decades of promises from the leadership to stop it.
USAFAnd so I think one of the problems we have is we're not driving down the sexual assault rate. And the other is that leadership has not shown to the active duty force, which carries over to the veteran community, that women are valued members that bring the fight to the enemy. As Congressman Takano has talked about, women are increasingly taking over leadership positions. They are 20 percent of the force. But senior leadership has not given the same message about inclusion and the value of women. That the women, who are serving are bring to the force.
NNAMDIOn to Laurel who is apparently in the parking lot of the VA medical facility in D.C. Laurel, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LAURELGood afternoon, sir. I was actually driving to my appointment when I heard your show start. And I was really surprised, because I had already been thinking, "Oh, gosh, you know, here I go. I wish that the -- you know, I wish that the other male veterans could understand how uncomfortable I feel going for my appointments." It's no different than the other ladies have already talked about, but it's kind of drag coming here and knowing that we have to face that. The care that I receive at the VA hospital -- and I've been through three different VA hospitals. One in Phoenix, one in Puerto Rico and now the one here in D.C. And I've always gotten really good care. The only problem that I've ever had has been at the Puerto Rico hospital and the one here in D.C. with the staring.
NNAMDIAnd walking that gauntlet, yes.
LAURELYeah. Staring and catcalling.
NNAMDIGlad you brought up your experiences, because even though we're almost running out of time I do have to read a statement that we got from Congresswoman Julia Brownley, who chairs the Women Veterans Task Force in the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. She said, "Since I launched the Women Veterans Task Force this year, I've continuously heard from veterans about the prevalence of sexual harassment and sexual assault of veterans, employees and caregivers at VA facilities either by fellow veterans or members of the public. My colleagues and I repeatedly discussed this issue during hearings and round tables held over the last six months. During that time we learned that VA does not require mandatory system wide training of employees in how to respond to these cases of sexual harassment and assault. I have urged the secretary of veterans' affairs to do more to address this problem. But I have not been satisfied with the response."
NNAMDIThat echoes what you have been saying Congressman Takano. Finally what kind of action would you like to see the Department of Veterans' Affairs take on this issue?
TAKANOWell, I'd like to see them support Julia Brownley's legislation. I'd to see them not distance themselves from this great challenge. I mean, instead of running away from what happened to our very own staffer Andrea Goldstein they should have been there at my side. We did give them ample notice that this had happened. But they've chosen a very different route. And mainly I want a change in attitude. A change in -- you know, just the attitude that they're bringing to this. Here we're not -- I want to make a very careful distinction. The medical care at the Washington VA from all appearances is very good. Andrea herself says she's gotten good care there. And, you know, undersecretary Stone told me that he thought that the care was good there.
TAKANOSo that's not in dispute. And I don't want to undermine on the line the VA in terms of the care it offers. But it's not alone in facing this challenge. But the federal government has to be a leader. It has to set an example and set a tone for the rest of, you know, the rest our country. And so I think that's the attitude I want to see our VA leadership take.
NNAMDIRepresentative Mark Takano is a congressman from California's 41st district. He's Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAndrea Goldstein is a Senior Policy Advisor on the aforementioned committee on veterans' affairs. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd Colonel Don Christensen is a retired Air Force Colonel and President of Protect Our Defenders. Thank you for joining us.
USAFThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIShort break. When we come back, a new book examines the resilience of families coping with Alzheimer's. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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