This story is part of DAV’s 2024 report, Women Veterans: The Journey to Mental Wellness. The report is a comprehensive assessment of the unique factors contributing to the staggering rates of suicide among women veterans and how the system charged with their mental health care can and must do better. Learn more at  

The first time Army veteran and DAV member Penni Lo’Vette Brown learned she could get health care through the Department of Veterans Affairs was by happenstance.

It was 1998, eight years after she has left the military, and she had been reeling from the effects of military sexual trauma (MST) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), compounded by intimate partner violence and alcohol abuse. She had become homeless and needed a shelter where she could keep herself and her children safe. The shelter she ended up at was next to a VA clinic.

Brown said her doctors put her on different medications and worked with her when she experienced adverse reactions. But she said after experiencing repeated turnover with therapists, she stopped seeking mental health treatment through the VA.

“I’m not going to keep putting a Band-Aid on this and have to rip the Band-Aid off with a new therapist every single time and start over from the beginning,” she said. “We have to get better with [retaining mental health clinicians].”

Brown said she was able to get sober on her own, and she now finds healing in sharing her story and helping other veterans. A former DAV chapter commander, she’s a current Benefits Protection Team leader and volunteers to assist veterans through the benefits claims process.

Brown knows how life-changing that help can be. She said when she transitioned out of the Army, nothing was done properly.

“There was no information given to me,” she said, adding that the MST she experienced was documented, yet nobody asked her if she needed follow-up care. Had she gotten help earlier, she said, she could have avoided alcoholism, bad relationships and low self-esteem.

“I went on not knowing that I was broken for years.”

Brown isn’t alone in dealing with the aftermath of MST. Among veterans enrolled in the VA, 1 in 3 women report experiencing such trauma. Experiencing MST is associated with mental health diagnoses that are linked to increased risks for suicidal thoughts and behavior, such as depression, substance use disorder, PTSD and intentional self-harm.

That’s why, Brown said, it’s critical the VA provide access to timely, quality and consistent mental health care and that women know what resources are available to them.