SALT LAKE CITY — Two-month-old Aryana Diaz cried out, and her mother quickly comforted her with a bottle.
It was an unusual sound and sight at the George E. Wahlen VA Medical Center in Salt Lake City. But Aryana's mother, Kassie Diaz, is one of several military veteran moms and expectant moms who enjoyed games and gifts at Operation Baby Shower at the hospital Friday.
Marine veteran Diaz never thought of the VA for her pregnancy until they contacted her to tell her about her benefits and her services. She was surprised to learn the VA offers prenatal and maternity care.
"They were awesome," Diaz said. "I didn't have to do anything."
More women serve in our military than ever before, and that's led to a lot of changes. Many of those veterans are mothers, so the VA has answered the call with services that surprise even the veterans themselves.
A veteran of the Iraq War, Diaz was part of the initial assault on Baghdad. Today she's a civilian contractor flying military drones and has made three more trips to Iraq as a contractor.
Diaz says she felt an immediate bond with the staff at the VA. "It is a sense of trust, or brotherhood, or understanding each other," she said.
The babies and their moms are making themselves at home, and the Salt Lake City Women Veterans Clinic is growing to meet their specific needs.
Female soldiers have had maternity benefits since 1996, but VA medical centers across the country are now expanding to give them the services on site. "I started out and had no patients; and already this morning, I saw five in one day," said Dr. Susie Rose, who joined the VA two months ago as the first-ever staff obstetrics-gynecologist.
"When I tell people I work at the VA, they kind of look at me and say, 'What? What are you doing? Those are old men, right?'" she said. "And I say, 'No, there are tons of women in the military that are serving our country.'"
Army veteran Tammy New, who is pregnant with her first child, was also shocked to discover the prenatal services. When she first learned she was pregnant, she wasn't sure who she would see.
"Then, I got a letter in the mail that they were offering it here, and I was like, 'Oh wow!'" New recalled. "They've been great, everybody up here. They've been perfect.
Women now make up 15 percent of America's active and reserve troops. That's five times more than in World War II and double the number servicewomen involved in the Vietnam War. New says half of her basic training unit was female.
According to Diaz, the Marine Corps also knows how to utilize women in today's military. "Many women are finding a sense of accomplishment from being able to help and aid their country, just as men are today," she said.
Eleven thousand female vets live in Utah; only 3,000 use the VA. But that number keeps growing, and the VA hopes more women vets will turn to them for medical care.
Rose points out the female veterans also have some issues that may differ from the rest of the female population. At the VA, they can get prenatal care, lab services and mental health counseling specific to their experiences.
Expectant moms still get their ultrasounds and deliver their babies at area hospitals. But "the women really appreciate having more access to care here," Rose said.
It's their health care, but also a support group where they can share their unique experiences and needs.