Donna Zephrine, of Bay Shore, is a proud Iraq War veteran. Zephrine sought the help of a lawyer to get her disability claims approved by the government. NewsdayTV’s Macy Egeland reports.  Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas; Barry Sloan; Photo Credit: Donna Zephrine

U.S. Army veteran Donna Zephrine served two deployments of duty in Iraq, leaving her with both physical and mental health struggles.

After returning home, Zephrine, 51, of Bay Shore, followed the lead of an increasing number of military vets nationwide, filing disability compensation claims with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. She was diagnosed with asthma and post-traumatic stress disorder related to her time overseas.

“The VA has definitely made progress, but like anything else, there's still so much red tape that you have to go through,” said Zephrine, who frequently uses services at the Northport VA Medical Center. “ … The armed forces has mostly been men. But lately, there's more females serving, so they're making changes.”

On March 21, the VA announced it is delivering disability compensation benefits to a record number of female veterans, which represent the fastest-growing cohort in the armed forces.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • The Department of Veterans Affairs said more than 700,000 women veterans are now receiving disability compensation benefits — an all-time record and a 26% increase from five years ago.
  • In New York State, more than 14,000 female vets are receiving disability compensation benefits, a 20% uptick from 2019. Those women vets received more than $25,000 in average annual claims.
  • The increase is attributed, in part, to the PACT Act, a federal bill that established a presumptive service condition between burn pits and other airborne pollution and cancer and 22 other illnesses.

Currently, federal figures show, 702,557 women veterans are receiving disability compensation benefits from VA — an all-time record and a 26% increase from five years ago. 

VA Deputy Secretary Tanya Bradsher notes "tremendous progress" in providing...

VA Deputy Secretary Tanya Bradsher notes "tremendous progress" in providing women veterans with access to care and benefits. Credit: U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

“Women veterans have fought in every war since the American Revolution, but they have not always been able to access the care and benefits they’ve earned and deserved,” Tanya Bradsher, the first woman to serve as VA deputy secretary, said in a statement. “But now, at [the] VA, we’re making sure that those days are over. These record numbers demonstrate that we’ve made tremendous progress in recent years, but they are still just the beginning.”

The number of male vets currently getting disability compensation benefits is around 5 million, according to VA figures.

More women vets receiving benefits in NY

In New York State, 14,043 women veterans are receiving disability compensation benefits from the VA as of February, according to department figures. That's a 20% uptick from 11,656 female vets statewide receiving those benefits in 2019, the data shows.

The department could not provide data specifically for Long Island female veterans. The Northport VA directed calls to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Washington, D.C., office.

Patrick Donohue, of Islip, a veterans advocate and an attorney who served in the Army's 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan, said the VA has made a concerted effort to get more female service members connected with disability compensation benefits.

“And it's starting to pay off,” said Donohue, who runs Project 9 Line, which helps former military members transition back into civilian life. “It's been an ongoing effort for a number of years. It's obviously a good thing as in the past, less women had participated and reaped in the benefits.”

In 2024, female vets in New York received more than $25,000 in average annual claims — a 43% increase from the nearly $18,000 received five years earlier, VA figures show.

Nationally, female vets — 16.5% of the total veteran population — receive an average of $26,809 in earned disability compensation benefits annually from the VA, the department said. That figure is slightly higher than the more than $23,000 in average annual compensation benefits received by male vets, VA figures show.

More than 89% of female vets who apply for disability benefits received compensation for at least one condition, the department said.

PACT Act's role

The sharp increase in women veterans benefits in recent years is largely due to the PACT Act, which established a presumptive service connection to cancers and 22 other illnesses, linking them to burn pits, airborne pollution, Agent Orange and other pollutants. The bill extended benefits to service members from Vietnam, the Gulf War and post-9/11 conflicts.

It's estimated that roughly 3.5 million military personnel could have been exposed to burn pits, which were used to dispose of waste during recent military conflicts.

“More and more females are having medical issues, and it's important for them to file claims,” Zephrine said. “ … We still don't have much of a voice because the military is almost all male. But the VA is trying to do better. It just takes time.”

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