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The VA's new mission: improve health of pregnant military veterans

A new law will pump $15 million into maternity care at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities.

WASHINGTON — After 20 years and nine deployments in the U.S. Army, Vivian Richards knows the importance of readiness.

“Readiness is the biggest concern of any leader in the military,” Richards told NBC News. “Do we have the personnel trained to the necessary level to go out and execute these combat missions?”

In 2010, she took on a new mission: motherhood.

But when it came time to deliver her baby while on active duty, the military health care system seemed anything but ready, Richards said.

Staffing shortages of obstetricians and gynecologists, midwifes and neonatal nurses at military treatment facilities where Richards was required to give birth made it so that she didn’t meet her birthing team until arriving at the hospital. The whole process made her feel like she had little control over her own health, and that the military health care system for pregnant veterans lacked empathy, Richards said.

But in November, President Joe Biden signed into law legislation that will pump $15 million into maternity care at Department of Veterans Affairs facilities. Changes will include more staffing and a comprehensive study of maternal mortality among veterans.

The Protecting Moms Who Served Act of 2021 requires that the Government Accountability Office report on maternal mortality and severe maternal morbidity among pregnant and postpartum veterans, with a focus on racial and ethnic disparities in maternal health outcomes for veterans.

NBC News sought a response from the medical facility where Richards had her baby but haven't received one.

The changes are a longtime coming, said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a combat veteran, and co-sponsor of the legislation.

“As we've gotten more women into higher levels of leadership, this becomes an issue,” Duckworth said. “And I was able to bring this up because I have my lived experience.”

Duckworth made headlines for her own pregnancy in 2018, as the first U.S. senator to give birth while in office. Shortly after, Duckworth made history again as the first senator to cast a vote with her baby girl, Maile, by her side.

“My VA was really good. They provided me breast pumps six months before my baby was born,” Duckworth said. “But if you are a woman veteran living on tribal lands, or somewhere more rural, you have some real challenges. So, my bill would really provide some funding to coordinate across the range of where we find our veterans.”

But it’s more than just finding veterans and reaching them where they are. To Duckworth, it’s also retaining a substantial part of the military workforce. Women made up 17 percent of active duty military members in 2020, according to the Department of Defense.

“A lot of women choose to go and become moms and start their families and leave the military,” Duckworth said. “That is millions and millions of dollars of training that goes out the door.”

Duckworth worked on the legislation with Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Rep. Lauren Underwood, D-Ill. and Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla.

Richards said the legislation shines a light on her experience and those who will serve after her.

“There's a lot of commercials and media attention when a dad comes home,” Richards said. “There's not a lot of coverage of a mother who leaves a 6-month-old baby and then comes back to a baby that's now walking and talking.”

“I think the best thing we can do for women veterans is not just bills, like what Senator Duckworth has passed, but really consider what a 20-year war does to any woman trying to have a baby,” Richards said.