Research Roundup: Nikola Alenkin Discusses How Social Workers Can Advocate for Transgender Veterans

Transgender Veteran Researcher Dr. Alenkin

Nikola Alenkin, PhD studies the transgender veteran population, the challenges they face and how we, as social workers, can best serve them. He examines the experiences of transgender veterans seeking mental health and medical services, and looks at the current policies in place to consider what can be done to improve them.

Although Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has been repealed, military service members and veterans who identify as transgender still face a number of challenges, including:

Challenges Facing Transgender Veterans

  • Possible discharge from the military for an “enlistment violation” if they transition to another gender;
  • Scant respect or recognition for their service, especially in the general public arena;
  • Medical service providers not being knowledgeable about specific transgender health issues;
  • General stigma ; and
  • Issues which confront all veterans, such as transitioning to civilian life.

Alenkin’s Research

Very little research has been done on the topic of transgender individuals in the military. Alenkin attempts to collate this research and provide an avenue for others to become educated about the growing trend to study this underserved population.

Alenkin makes several recommendations about how transgender veterans’ experiences in seeking health care through systems of care, such as the Veterans Affairs (VA) system, can be improved upon. The first recommendation is for the VA to provide ongoing training and education to its medical staff regarding the unique health care needs of the transgender veteran population. This can help staff understand the range of issues that a transgender veteran is facing and how they can best serve such patients.

The second recommendation is to expand veterans’ health care coverage to include sex-reassignment surgery. Because of the high cost of this kind of surgery, it is often very difficult for transgender individuals to access.

The final recommendation Alenkin makes is to enhance current policies to better recognize transgender veterans’ service publicly. Currently, their service is not publicly acknowledged, further stigmatizing them and robbing them of the respect that usually accompanies service in the armed forces.

Social workers can play an important role in improving the services available to the transgender veteran population. Both veterans and transgender individuals are underserved populations, and individuals at the intersection of both groups may be in even greater need of services.

Social workers can work to raise awareness about transgender issues by serving as educators within their place of employment, and we can work as advocates to ensure that these individuals receive the services they require and are treated with the respect they deserve. Aside from health-related issues, social workers working with transgender veterans can also assist them with other challenges faced by returning veterans, such as the stigma of mental health issues, which impacts employment, substance abuse and violence. The goal is to integrate what might be considered an oppressed group to a level of status deserving of their service.