WASHINGTON — Advocates are lobbying for sweeping reforms in women veterans services in the wake of a nude photo sharing scandals that have raised questions about misogyny and morale in the military.
"When people think of veterans, when they close their eyes, they don't think about someone who looks like me," said Allison Jaslow, chief of staff for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "Until we get over that hurdle, we're not going to be able to get everything else that we need."
The measure -- dubbed the Deborah Sampson Act, after the woman who disguised herself as a man to serve in the Continental Army -- mandates more peer-to-peer counseling for women veterans, expanded newborn care services at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities, better tracking of women's health issues by the department and $20 million to retrofit VA medical centers with more privacy features.
It's backed by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers, who called it "common sense" reforms for the veterans bureaucracy.
"We need to make every resource available to our veterans when they return," said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., ranking member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. "And it's incredibly important that VA keeps its promises to (women veterans)."
Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., said the measure isn't special treatment for one group of veterans.
"This isn't anything we're just giving to them," he said. "These are things they earned."
The new legislation comes as lawmakers and military leaders grapple with their response to allegations that hundreds of active-duty troops and reservists have actively participated in sharing nude photos and harassment of female military colleagues.
Marine Corps officials have already shut down several of the sites, including the infamous "Marines United" Facebook group which posted more than 30,000 of the questionable photos. That site was made public after reporting by The War Horse, prompting a criminal investigation from Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
Since then, copycat sites with the same pictures have surfaced, and similar sites for featuring troops and veterans from other services have been identified.
The scandal has prompted not only questions about online policies and discipline for military members, but also whether the abusive behavior indicates deeper cultural problems within the ranks.
In response to those accusations during a Senate hearing March 14, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller expressed frustration that some members of his community still view women as inferior or less-worthy Marines.
"How much more do the females of our Corps have to do to be accepted?" he asked. "Was it enough when Maj. Megan McClung was killed by an (improvised explosive device) in Ramadi? Or Capt. Jennifer Harris killed when her helicopter was shot down while she was flying blood from Baghdad to Fallujah Surgical?"
"I'm committed to making this right and I need all Marines equally committed. We all have to commit to getting rid of this perversion to our culture. Enough is enough."
But female veterans say that kind of tough talk is only one small step toward gaining acceptance by society as a whole. They still see VA facilities that are unprepared for women patients and fellow veterans who are likely to question their service.
"As the only woman in my family who has served, it’s still astonishing to me to walk into my father’s VFW and they think I’m someone’s girlfriend," said Melissa Bryant, an Iraq War veteran and IAVA director of political affairs. "That’s part of the culture change we’re facing."
Women make up just under 10 percent of the national veterans population, but represent one of the fastest growing segments of VA beneficiaries. Nearly 345,000 women served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and military officials are working to open all combat jobs to women.
In an effort to raise public awareness of the problem, the Deborah Sampson Act also includes language urging the Department of Veterans Affairs to update its motto from President Abraham Lincoln’s quote "to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan."
Jaslow, who served two combat tours in Iraq, and other group members broached the topic with VA David Shulkin earlier in the week, arguing for more gender-inclusive language as a signal to the public about the department’s growing female veterans population.
Other groups have pushed for even more aggressive changes.
Last week, officials at the Service Women’s Action Network called for the Marine Corps to end gender segregation in boot camp, increase the Corps recruitment of women, and provide a whistleblower hotline for Marines to report sexism and discrimination in the ranks.
"Marine Corps leaders cannot afford to continue to deny that a systemic cultural problem exists," they said in a statement.
But supporters of the new legislation called it a first step in that larger cultural fight.
"This is long overdue," said Paul Rieckhoff, CEO of IAVA. "This is something that all lawmakers should be able to support … and it should be on the president’s desk quickly."
Leo Shane III covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.