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The VA wants to do more for women's health in the military — starting with surprise baby showers


More women than ever are serving in the U.S. military and becoming veterans after their service. Jess Mador at WABE in Atlanta reports the federal government's beginning to focus on their health needs, including during pregnancy.

JESS MADOR, BYLINE: A few years ago, the Atlanta VA started getting creative with their outreach to pregnant patients. They started throwing surprise baby showers. Then, during the pandemic, those morphed into drive-through baby showers. The Atlanta VA building itself is beige and bland, but out front, some volunteers have decorated a folding table and stacked it high with free diaper bags and other baby supplies. A car pulls up to the table.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Thank you for your service.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you guys.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Thank you. Congratulations.

MADOR: At first, the pregnant veteran behind the wheel looks surprised. Then she breaks into a big smile. Someone hands her a crown of fake flowers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Would you like to wear it?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Can you wear it?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Stunning. Remind us what you're having - a girl?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'm having a girl.

MADOR: While they chat through the car window, other volunteers rush forward and pile boxes of diapers onto the back seat. And the final gesture before she drives away is a gift card.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: A $100 gift card to get the last-minute baby needs. Because we know there's a lot.

MADOR: The Atlanta VA throws a shower like this every three months for about 20 pregnant veterans at a time. It's part of the women veterans program. The goal is to make sure pregnant veterans get their prenatal appointments and also see specialists if they need to. Carisma Carter served in the Navy. She's pushed her seat far back from the steering wheel to make room for her big belly.

CARISMA CARTER: I'm eight months, and I'm having two boys - twins. This is my first pregnancies (laughter).

MADOR: Carter says she knows the pregnancy risks she could face as a Black woman, and she appreciates the new outreach the VA is doing.

CARTER: You know, just checking on the women, support, make sure they have everything that they need for the baby, because a lot of people don't have that support. They don't have family. They're doing this on their own.

MADOR: Kathleen O'Loughlin manages the program. She says they can't throw every veteran a baby shower, so they focus on those at highest risk - vets like Carter, pregnant with multiples, or who have a disability related to their service.

KATHLEEN O'LOUGHLIN: This is an extra set of eyeballs on them. Are you making sure you're taking your blood pressure medicines? Are you getting all of your appointments? Are you meeting with your doctors?

MADOR: Research shows these kinds of checks can help prevent pregnancy complications. The problem is urgent. The U.S. maternal mortality rate, already worse than that of most other high-income nations, increased again during the pandemic. Dr. Jamya Pittman is medical director for women's health at the Atlanta VA. She says physical and psychological injuries from military service can increase the risk for poor maternal outcomes.

JAMYA PITTMAN: A lot of our women veterans have the diagnoses of anxiety, depression. They may also have PTSD. We also know that pregnancy in itself can be a stressor on the body.

MADOR: Nationally, the VA is focusing on women's health at all life stages. For example, the Atlanta women's program serves 24,000 veterans, and about 9% of them are pregnant. Two years ago, Congress passed a law mandating a national study of pregnancy outcomes among veterans, including any racial disparities. They also provided $15 million. And the Atlanta VA is using some of that money to make sure veterans are getting medical care for a full year after giving birth.

For NPR News, I'm Jess Mador in Atlanta.

RASCOE: This story comes from NPR's partnership with WABE and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jess Mador comes to WYSO from Knoxville NPR-station WUOT, where she created an interactive multimedia health storytelling project called TruckBeat, one of 15 projects around the country participating in AIR's Localore: #Finding Americainitiative. Before TruckBeat, Jess was an independent public radio journalist based in Minneapolis. She’s also worked as a staff reporter and producer at Minnesota Public Radio in the Twin Cities, and produced audio, video and web stories for a variety of other news outlets, including NPR News, APM, and PBS television stations. She has a Master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York. She loves making documentaries and telling stories at the intersection of journalism, digital and social media.