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Department of Veterans Affairs shifts focus as more women join armed forces

| Sunday, March 17, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Lt. Col. Michele Papakie served in Afghanistan in 2010 on a response team to help service women deal with sexual assaults.

“Survivors were coming to me and sharing their stories. They're asking me to help them, and I couldn't even help myself,” said Papakie, a member of the 171st Air Refueling Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard and an associate professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Working with rape victims revived memories of her own sexual assault, which happened outside the military 12 years before. It was a nightmare that she had told no one about.

Papakie spoke about her experience shortly before she addressed a conference of female veterans on Saturday in Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland.

She urged them to seek help from the Department of Veterans Affairs as she did upon returning home.

“I feel stronger than before I left,” she said. “They helped me connect the dots.”

Patricia M. Hayes, the VA's chief consultant for Women Veterans Health, said just 2 percent of all active duty personnel in the United States were women in 1945 at the end of World War II. Today, their numbers have grown to 15 percent of all active duty personnel and 18 percent of those in the National Guard or Reserves. The number of female users of the VA has more than doubled from 159,000 to 354,000.

“The VA has shifted its focus to meet all the unique needs of women veterans,” Hayes said. “We had to change the culture of the VA.”

The VA has installed female waiting rooms in its facilities. Services include comprehensive primary care, gynecological services, mental health, disease management, prevention and screening, maternity and specialty care.

Daniela Krawchyk, 50, of Raccoon in Beaver County is a retired master sergeant who served in the 171st Air Refueling Wing.

“By coming here today, I hope this will get me started to understand the system,” she said.

Afterward, Papakie said one of the female students in the honor guard approached her. “She said, ‘Thank you so much for sharing your story. It really inspired me.' ”

Bill Zlatos is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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