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Octavia Harris: San Antonio Veteran Helping Shape Women's Care At VA

Octavia Harris visits the Texas Public Radio studio.
Carson Frame / TPR News

There are over 2.2 million women veterans in the U.S., and about 37,000 in San Antonio alone. Many seek care through the VA Health System. In January, a local veteran named Octavia Harris was tapped to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs' Advisory Committee on Women Veterans. She'll have the ear of VA Secretary David Shulkin for the next two years, and be able to offer input on policies that affect healthcare for women veterans nationwide.  

“The women veteran population is growing exponentially,” Harris said. “We’re about 10 percent of the veteran population now. That number is growing. The needs of women veterans cross over to some of the same needs as male veterans, but we also have specific and unique issues. Those things we like to bring to life.”

The committee has previously offered its input on topics like gynecological services, therapies and protocols for military sexual trauma, homelessness, vocational rehabilitation, claims processing and recreational therapy.

Every two years, the Advisory Committee on of Women Veterans issues an official report that goes all the way to Congress through the VA secretary. In 2016, it recommended that the VA conduct more gender-impact studies across its programs, a goal Harris says is slowly being met.

“We have seen an increase in data collection,” she said. “It’s impactful because if you don’t pare down people’s concerns — or what services are not provided for women veterans — ... if you don’t have those numbers, then you can’t move forward in making improvements.”

She spoke at length about how gender-specific information is especially important in conversations about female veteran homelessness.

“We are looking at making recommendations to change the VA’s definition of homelessness,” Harris said. “We noticed, for instance, that more women veterans tend to couch surf as opposed to staying on the street, making it harder for them to be included in homelessness counts. If they’re not counted, then they may not get the benefits that are afforded to other homeless veterans.”

Harris acknowledged concerns that the VA is not inclusive of women, and said that a culture shift was in progress within the organization. She says she’s noticed that many female ex-servicemembers don’t identify as veterans.

“One of the things we talk about is: Why are there so many veterans that still don’t know they’re veterans? Especially the older women veterans,” she said. “When you walk into a VA clinic or a medical center, you should see posters that include women veterans. Outreach is important, so women veterans don’t walk in and feel that the VA isn’t a place for them.”

Harris also said she hopes to expand peer support networks within the VA so women vets can help each other navigate the system.

The top priority for now, Harris says, is making sure women veterans get comprehensive care to include primary care, gynecological services, and mental health care.

“You know, women aren't out there trying to be treated special, but we definitely want that inclusion,” she said. “To feel part of the VA. You know, we want to be able to walk into the VA and one stop shop.”

Harris says the Advisory Committee on Women Vets has long talked about offering additional reproductive health services.

“One of the things that we talked about last year — actually a couple of years ago and it's still an ongoing discussion — is offering abortion counseling for women veterans, whether it's rape, incest, health of the mother or just the choice.”

The VA is currently prohibited by legislative authority from providing abortion services.

Carson Frame can be reached at carson@tpr.org or on Twitter @carson_frame

Carson Frame was Texas Public Radio's military and veterans' issues reporter from July 2017 until March 2024.