Rosemarie Austin of Mahoning Township enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1962 two years out of high school and at a time when few women joined up.
Fast-forward 47 years, and Austin, who had served in communications at Fort Gordon, Ga., may be among the 10,000 women who served in the military during the Vietnam era to be surveyed in the U.S. Veterans Administration's first-ever, four-year, $5.6 million study of the physical and mental health of women veterans who served in the military during the Vietnam War. The veterans will have served in Vietnam, elsewhere in Southeast Asia or in the United States.
All of the women who served in the military during the Vietnam era were volunteers: young women who had the courage to tear themselves from the safety and security of hearth and home to serve their country.
"VA Research worked with the women veterans community to determine that a study of the long-term mental and physical health consequences of Vietnam was needed," a Veterans Administration spokeswoman said. "A scientific panel was assembled, and they developed a proposal that was peer-reviewed and evaluated to be meritorious."
About 250,000 women served in the military during the Vietnam War and about 7,000 were in or near Vietnam, according to the Veterans Administration.
Women are the fastest-growing group of veterans. In 1988, women made up just 4 percent of the veteran population, but now that percentage has nearly doubled. By 2020, one in 10 veterans will be a woman, according to the VA.
The women who served during the Vietnam era are now in their late 50s and 60s.
"Women veterans may experience the same medical and physical ailments as men, and may experience other gender specific ailments," the spokeswoman said. "(The study) will provide further information about this issue for Vietnam era women veterans. Many of the questions on the survey will also be answered by male veterans participating in another study, and so the results may be compared in the future."
The study involves interviewing and reviewing the medical records of 10,000 women. Researchers will look at the prevalence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, its relationship with other conditions, and other mental and physical issues. The VA's Cooperative Studies Program, which is conducting the study, will mail surveys and conduct the interviews via telephone.
The Veterans Administration will use the results to get a better handle on the kinds of services it will need to provide to the aging veterans, and how those services will be delivered. The findings will also determine the direction and scope of future research.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki announced the study in November.
"Our veterans have earned the very best care. The Veterans Administration realizes that women veterans require specialized programs, and this study will help the VA provide high-quality care for women veterans of the Vietnam era," he said.
A Veterans Administration spokeswoman said the study "is the latest in a round of initiatives over the past few years designed to create or enhance services for women veterans. The initiatives include the implementation of comprehensive primary care throughout the nation; staffing every Veterans Administration Medical Center with a women veterans program manager; supporting a multifaceted research program on women's health; improving communication and outreach to women veterans; and continuing the operation of organizations like the Center for Women Veterans and the Women Veterans Health Strategic Healthcare Group."
The VA is currently compiling a database of women Vietnam era veterans. The surveys will be mailed near the end of 2010. In addition to the mail surveys, information will be collected via telephone interviews, a Veterans Administration spokeswoman said.
"The goal is to obtain information from as many Vietnam era women veterans as possible who served in or near Vietnam. Additionally, there will be a comparable group of Vietnam Era women veterans who did not serve in or near Vietnam. Scientists managing the study will confirm military service during the Vietnam era from military service records. Women will be selected to participate in this study through the combination of databases used in prior research as well as self-registration," a VA spokeswoman said.
While the VA declined to release a copy of the actual surveys, the spokeswoman said they would include questions about the women's' current physical and mental health status as well as their overall functioning and disability.
The results will be collected over the next two years, analyzed and then prepared for release in scientific journals.
The Veterans Administration points to past studies that have resulted in more effective programs.
"VA Research supports a portfolio of studies on women's health, and has a strong track record of studies focused on women. For example, a VA study showed that in a large, randomized, controlled clinical trial women who received prolonged exposure therapy for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder experienced greater symptom reduction than those who received another therapy. This study provided evidence that prolonged exposure is effective in women veterans and led to the roll-out of this therapy into VA clinical practice," the spokeswoman said.
The newest study is part of a larger review.
"Current research is examining the complex interaction of physical and mental health; unique risks and outcomes of military service; barriers to care; and the impact of VA's organization and structures of health care delivery to women veterans on access, service availability, utilization, satisfaction and quality of care. Research is also being specifically directed at analyzing the needs and experiences of the new generation of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom women veterans, including those who served in the National Guard and Reserves as well as the regular military," the spokeswoman said.
A study similar to the women Vietnam veterans' health study is planned for male veterans.
"Another large study will conduct mail and telephone surveys of male Vietnam era veterans," she said. "This is important because the results may be compared between the two studies, and will provide information about different health care needs for women, especially as they near retirement age."