The Associated Press
PHOENIX — KJ Sloan entered the technological equivalent of a rat’s nest when she started to manage the Phoenix Veterans Affairs women’s program.
Pregnant veterans had been checked into the VA computer system as long as three years prior — but no one had bothered to note when or if they had given birth. Veterans’ maternity-care bills were going unpaid. Even worse, in the eyes of Sloan, the VA was losing contact with women she believes the organization should serve.
That was two years ago. Now, the Phoenix VA’s maternity-support program is being touted as a national model.
Sloan said she now knows exactly how many pregnant vets — 66 — need maternity care in metro Phoenix.
Bills are getting paid. Military moms-to-be are getting phone calls, visits and gift baskets from volunteers who make sure they are getting the VA services the need.
And programs in Tucson, Prescott, Albuquerque and Texas are using the Phoenix volunteer effort as a model for their own work with pregnant veterans, Sloan said.
She gives much of the credit to two volunteers, sisters Kathy Laurier and Barbara Shaw of Phoenix. The pair’s efforts in helping to turn the maternity program around earned them Phoenix VA’s Volunteer of the Year awards in May.
“The only training we had was that we are both moms and grandmas,” said Laurier, a veteran who worked in a Navy personnel office during the Vietnam War.
Recently, Laurier and Shaw pulled up in an SUV packed full of baby gifts to the Ahwatukee Foothills home of former Army veterinary technician Stefanie Lewis. Her baby, Noah, is expected in July.
Besides offering tips about not exerting herself too much while getting her home ready for the baby, Laurier and Shaw gave Lewis four large baskets filled with toys and practical items for the baby. Lewis also received a separate basket of bath and pampering gifts for herself.
“Oh my gosh, I was not expecting this,” Lewis said as she looked through the trove of gifts and fought happy tears. “This is like a baby shower.”
Active-duty women face challenges. Six months ago, an Army general in Iraq generated controversy by adding pregnancy to a list of grounds for court-martial. Around the same time, an Army cook was threatened with dishonorable discharge for refusing deployment because she had a 10-month-old son.
Laurier said female veterans typically are unaware of their VA maternity benefits. She and Shaw, who did not serve in the military, intend to change that.
Lewis had expected to deal with the VA only when it came to bills.
“I feel so lucky that they (Laurier and Shaw) found me,” said Lewis, who served in the Army in Germany and has lived in metro Phoenix since 2006.
“My husband and I have lived and traveled all over the world — Germany, Japan, Thailand. But neither of us know very much about having babies.”
Shaw said coaching expectant and breast-feeding moms is the fun part of the volunteer work.
She and her sister also have handled more tedious duties, like calling women to find out if they still needed services and if they had bills to be paid. Some vets were fighting with collection agencies, she said.
Sloan said that when she started her job, she had a list of about 140 women who had enrolled in the Phoenix VA’s maternity program. But it was unclear what had happened to them.
Some of the calls to the homes of female veterans have been difficult, Shaw said.
One husband who answered the phone told her his wife had died in childbirth. The VA had no record of it.
Other women needed help coping with the stress of having been in Iraq or Afghanistan on top of the stress of being pregnant.
“They come back with all this stress,” Shaw said. “Their boyfriends leave, and then they find out they are pregnant. They are left to deal with it all alone.”
Laurier said she and Shaw started picking up small baby gifts at dollar stores when they first started visiting the moms-to-be. Over time, donations started rolling in and now every future mom in the program receives at least a couple of large baskets of gifts, she said.
“I could not believe it when they came to my house and brought gift baskets, a portable high chair and a portable baby swing,” said Kori Kirkpatrick of Scottsdale, whose daughter Kodi was born a year ago.
Kirkpatrick, who served as a firefighter in the Navy, nominated Laurier and Shaw for their award: “They are fun ladies and make a wonderful team.”