Debbie Manchado was not taken seriously when she walked into the Veterans Affairs clinic in Big Spring, Texas.
"Is your dad a veteran?" the older men in the waiting room would ask her, Manchado said. "Or is it your husband?"
The 11-year Army veteran and mother of three said she never saw another woman at the Texas VA clinic. Upon moving to Salt Lake City in 2007, Manchado said she was more than pleased to learn of the all-women's clinic at the local VA.
"I come into this VA hospital and I see women, and I'm like, 'Yay!' " Manchado said.
Dozens of female veterans visited the open house at the women veterans' clinic Friday to learn more about the clinic itself, as well as about the risks of heart disease, which kills five women in the state of Utah daily, said Gina Painter, women veterans program manager.
"What this is about is letting people know that the VA serves women — we honor our women veterans," Painter said. "And that we are working as fast as we can to secure the level of care that the men have and then some to meet unique needs."
The open house offered blood pressure screenings, EKGs, heart-healthy recipes and consultations related to heart health. Those running the clinic hope to raise awareness about the services they have to offer. The women's clinic provides an all-female waiting room and the option for all-women providers if a veteran so desires.
Painter has worked hard to make the clinic as female-friendly as possible by making adjustments that were not considered when the VA catered mainly to men, such as ensuring that all of the beds in the exam rooms face away from the doors and that curtains are in place and locks are on doors in each room so no women are interrupted during their visits.
Women now make up 18 percent of the active-duty military, and as a result, the VA is seeing more female patients than ever before. Utah alone is home to 12,000 female veterans.
"System-wide we are making changes," Painter said. "It's just step-by-step."
Victoria Burgess, a Salt Lake City psychologist, who in addition to operating a private practice, spent 27 years in the reserves before retiring in 2005. Upon returning from Desert Storm, Burgess was invited to join the International Women's Forum. Despite this prestigious honor, she still finds discrimination against women in the military.
"People look at me differently when they find out what I've done," Burgess said.
Burgess, 65, has enjoyed the benefits of both the VA and the women's clinic. She said she appreciates the opportunity to interact with other women in the clinic who have had similar experiences.
"I'm grateful for it," Burgess said. "It's really helpful and they've got a lot of dedicated people."
Burgess has worked with patients who suffer a wide range of emotional issues, and understands the importance of and is impressed with the services provided by the women's clinic.
"Not only does the clinic take care of their physical needs, but it will connect them to resources for their emotional needs," said Jill Atwood, public affairs officer for the VA Salt Lake Health Care System.
The female clinic holds many classes and sponsors groups for women only. The VA offers post-traumatic stress disorder services, but many women formerly were reluctant to attend sessions because the sessions were primarily made up of men. Often, a woman's struggles with PTSD stem from military sexual trauma. Painter said one in three women in the military are sexually abused.
The women veterans clinic offers services for women experiencing PTSD, so they do not have to attend sessions with men. The clinic also offers a support and education group for women veterans every Thursday evening at 6 p.m. The group gives veterans the chance to discuss anything and everything with other female veterans.
Manchado was thrilled to learn about the support group. She is interested in returning to the Army, but struggles with the thought of leaving her three children. She plans to attend the support group in hopes of getting advice from other women who have been in her situation.
"They are unique needs that women have," Painter said. "We're just trying to meet their needs."