When Jas Boothe, a highly decorated Army officer, was told in 2005 that she was being deployed to Iraq, she was excited to go.
But as she was preparing to ship out, Boothe, an Army reservist, single mother, and resident of New Orleans at the time, suffered back-to-back life-altering events.
That August, she lost everything she owned when Hurricane Katrina hit.
A month later, she was diagnosed with an aggressive head, neck, and throat cancer.
Boothe was suddenly homeless and facing discharge from the military. She was dealing with major depression and needed full-time medical care and a job to support herself and her young son.
When she went to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), she said agency officials told her she needed to go on welfare like other single mothers.
“I was homeless, and the VA turned me away,” said Boothe, who holds dual master’s degrees in human resource management, and management and leadership, and is now a major. “I would rather they spit in my face, honestly. It was the most degrading experience I’ve ever had.”
Boothe told Healthline that she concluded at that moment that women veterans were not a priority in American society, and they’re not taken seriously or appreciated inside or outside the military.
“Women veterans were an afterthought,” Boothe said. “We have a population now of women that were heavily deployed to combat zones, but the VA was never set up for them and they still are not prepared. Is the VA trying? Yes. But too often they are failing.”
Boothe said she still has to wait for months to see a doctor at the VA, and her medication had almost run out.
Getting back on her feet
A year later, Boothe accepted a job offer from the Army National Guard, then returned to full-time duty in Washington, D.C.
She’s now married to a Marine combat veteran and is the mother of two boys, one of whom is serving in the Air Force.
But the experience at the VA ignited a fire in her and left her determined to help as many of her fellow women veterans when they need it most.
“Women have been in the same positions as our brothers, in combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan and other places,” said Boothe.
In 2010, she founded Final Salute Inc., which has assisted more than 2,000 women veterans and children in more than 30 states and territories to find homes and get back on their feet.
“We’re proud. We don’t want pity. We’re just asking for equal treatment, and when we don’t get that, it hurts,” said Boothe.
She wants people to know that you “don’t have to have been a Ranger or a Navy Seal to have PTSD or to be psychologically or physically wounded from military service.”
Upgrades are needed
Olivia Chavez, a helicopter pilot who served in three branches of the military over two decades, told Healthline the VA has “just not kept up with our needs.”
At the Los Angeles County VA where Chavez receives her care, the main building is a modern facility with new chairs, new TVs with cable television in the waiting areas, new flooring, and new equipment.
But according to Chavez, “Female veterans have to wait to see their doctor in an area with old chairs, and a TV that only gets one channel that typically airs talk shows that are about sex, abuse, drugs, courts, etc. So the staff just turns it off for us because the last thing I want to watch at the VA as I am waiting for my doctor is a show on cheating spouses, molestation, or rape.”
Chavez said that VA clinic could use a new scale and blood pressure machine.
“Why did the entire building get an overhaul and we were left in our old little space?” she asked. “I feel like I’m being told that we don't matter and we aren't important enough. Why is something as simple as uniformity not considered? I know I’m not the only one that feels that way.”
VA doesn’t like whistleblowers
It’s tough when a woman in the military or at the VA tries to do the right thing.
Paula Pedene, a disabled Navy veteran, saw deep-seated corruption at the Phoenix VA and tried to right it.
But the chain of command came down hard on her.
Pedene was the original whistleblower at the Phoenix VA, which was Ground Zero in a national scandal two years ago. An investigation revealed that VA managers in Phoenix were lying about wait times for veterans to see a doctor, and many of these veterans died waiting.
Pedene, who was head of public affairs at the Phoenix VA, and still works there, said when she reported bad behavior at the Phoenix VA she was stripped of her job title and moved to the basement.
Pedene said it’s tougher for women than men to make the transition from active military to veteran.
“When women are in the military, they feel protected, even though there are, of course, problems,” Pedene said. “But when a woman leaves active duty, they do not have that safety net. They’re suddenly disconnected and that can be very difficult.”
Officials at the Veterans Administration did not respond to Healthline’s request for an interview for this story.