The United States has nearly 2 million women veterans today, but but Rep. Julia Brownley thinks many Americans never really see them.

“Women veterans are too often overlooked, forgotten or feel invisible,” said Brownley, D-Calif. “We are here today to change that. Women have served in uniform since this country’s earliest days … but for far too long their issues have been unnoticed or ignored.”

On Thursday, the Brownley formally launched the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s new task force on women veterans, with the goal of “advancing equity in access to resources, benefits and healthcare” for the group.

Women make up about 10 percent of the nation’s veterans population, 17 percent of current military personnel and 30 percent of military service academy students. The number of women using VA health services has more than tripled over the last two decades.

But Browley, the head of the bipartisan panel, and women from several veterans groups spoke Thursday about common, persistent problems they face within VA and from society at large.

Past studies have shown one in four women veterans have faced harassment when visiting VA facilities, from both other patients and staff. Despite investment in more women-specific health care at the department, those veterans continue to face problems accessing care. Women who testified at the hearing said many of their peers have walked away from VA because they find it too unwelcoming.

“We need action,” said Ginger Miller, CEO of Women Veterans Interactive. “We don’t need another national portrait campaign. We need national outreach and engagement. We don’t need another male-dominated VSO to represent us at the table. We need to have a seat at the table, and if we can’t, we will continue to build our own.”

Dr. Patricia Hayes, chief consultant for women’s health services at the Veterans Health Administration, said her department has made significant strides in recent years in improving services for women. That includes better gynecological and maternity services, and new training programs to monitor and curb harassment that women veterans may face.

Brownley acknowledged some improvements but told Hayes that “we need to have more tools that replicate urgency … Women continue to face sexism and inequity in a system that was originally built for men.”

Both Democrats and Republicans on the committee expressed support for the new task force, lauding it as a way to elevate and highlight the challenges facing women veterans.

Committee staff they expect to see a similar effort in the Senate in coming weeks, and to begin advocating for specific legislative fixes to some of the inequities by this summer.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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