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The VA Is Making It Rain Baby Showers

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Estela Blackshire and her daughter, Audrey Rose. (Libby Denkmann/LAist)
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Military veteran and expectant mother: many people don't associate the two roles.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is trying to correct that misconception while it boosts outreach to the fast-growing segment of female veterans. This month, the agency is holding dozens of baby showers for pregnant women and new moms across the country.

On Thursday at the VA's West L.A. campus in Brentwood, pink and blue balloons led to a room filled with cupcakes, baby supplies, and expecting parents cooing over tiny socks.

But don't let the cute decorations fool you. These are tough mothers.

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Take Gena Smith, a former missile radar technician in the Navy.

"My job was to maintain and operate the system that allows for us to shoot those missiles that go boom," she said.

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Monica Exley (left) and Gena Smith (right). (Libby Denkmann/LAist)

Now Smith is 20 weeks pregnant with her first child.

She says female veterans can be underestimated, or mistaken for the wives of servicemembers when they come to VA campuses for healthcare.

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"There's always that question of like, 'are you a veteran?'" Smith said. "I get a chuckle out of it. I don't get too bent out of shape."

The share of the veteran population that's female, now a little over 9 percent, is expected to double over the next 25 years. Women veterans, however, are less likely to use VA healthcare and other services than their male counterparts.

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Donna Callaway and her boyfriend AJ Perez play a baby shower game at the West Los Angeles VA's second-annual baby shower. (Libby Denkmann/LAist)

The VA faces several persistent problems when it comes to attracting female patients.

One is cultural. Women may be less inclined to visit the VA because they don't feel welcome in the 'boys club' atmosphere of a traditionally male-oriented space. Female veterans are also often dealing with the lingering effects of service-related trauma like military sexual assault.

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And there's the issue of identity, says Melissa Lee with the UCLA Veteran Family Wellness Center.

"Women veterans typically don't identify themselves [primarily] as veterans, so they don't access resources at the VA,"she said.

At Thursday's shower, Lee handed out fluffy hand-crocheted baby blankets donated by volunteers.

"[Female vets] typically are underserved," she said. "So this is a really important event to let women know, 'hey, there are things at the VA for me to take advantage of.'"

Renee Andreassen, the Women Veterans Program Manager for the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, says that baby showers and programs like anti-harassment training are meant to show female vets that VA care is also geared for them.

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"It's not just a man's VA anymore," Andreassen said.

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Renee Andreassen with the VAGLAHS. (Libby Denkmann/LAist)

There are now two designated women's health providers at every VA clinic, Andreassen said. At large facilities like West L.A. and Sepulveda, there are comprehensive women's health clinics with primary care, OB-GYN services, nutrition, pharmacy and mental health care.

"Many veterans don't even know we have this care," said Dr. Fatma Batuman, the Medical Director for Women's Health at the Greater Los Angeles VA Healthcare system. "If women need to see a cardiologist, or get a mammogram, our care coordinators manage all that."

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The VA's Dr. Fatma Batuman. (Libby Denkmann/LAist)

"The women really like that because it's their own separate area, and it's a one-stop shop," Andreassen said.

Wellness programs are available for new and expecting moms at the VA, but women can't get prenatal care or give birth at VA facilities. In Los Angeles, a VA "maternity care coordinator" connects patients with nearby hospitals or other outside providers and stays in touch throughout their pregnancy.

"Our maternity care coordinator is very easy to get in touch with and reaches out a lot," said Natascha Frith, who served in the Army for nearly five years, including two tours in Iraq. "We don't get the same respect. But it's improving."

Frith has a four-year-old son and is looking forward to the birth of her baby daughter.

"I hope that she gets to do anything she puts her mind to," Frith said. "And I hope it gets better for women, whether she decides to be in the armed forces or another male-dominated field. I want her to feel comfortable, whatever she does."

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Army veteran Natascha Frith is expecting her second child, a daughter. (Libby Denkmann/LAist)