As women are increasingly playing a more significant role in the military, the VA needs to adequately provide treatment and care for female veterans.
“The U.S. military is not prepared to care for women warriors returning from combat,” a female veteran shared with me during one of my classes.
This bright 26-year-old young woman served in Afghanistan and is now pursuing her bachelor’s degree hoping to eventually study law. She has been having some issues stemming from her time in the military and is doing her best to keep up in school and earn her degree.
Her comments stem from the news that three female Marines have become the first women to graduate from the Corps’ enlisted infantry training school in North Carolina. The women completed the 59-day course and met the same test standards as the men, Marine Corps spokeswoman Capt. Geraldine Carey told the Washington Post.
In a report by the Society for Women’s Health Research titled: PTSD in Women Returning From Combat: Future Directions in Research and Service Delivery, it was noted that as of Sept. 30, 2008, over 200,000 women were serving on active duty in the military, and women make up approximately 14 percent of deployed forces.
While women are technically barred from serving in combat, they are serving in forward positions in greater numbers. In conflicts over the past decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military sent more than 280,000 female troops into war zones. These new roles for women in military operations bring physical and mental health concerns, namely post-traumatic stress disorder. Among military personnel serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, more than 17 percent of service members surveyed screened positive for PTSD.
Women Face Host of Unique Issues Relating to War
Research has shown that there are significant gender differences in diagnosis and treatment of PTSD in the general public. However, much less is known about PTSD in women returning from combat. As the proportion of female veterans is projected to be 18 percent by the year 2040, it is critical that the military, the Department of Veterans Affairs, and private sector providers are prepared to identify and care for the unique needs of female service members, veterans, and contractors with PTSD.
Another issue facing women veterans is trauma they encounter after sexual abuse, which has been a widely occurring phenomenon in the U.S. military. A recent report from Kaiser Health News showed that at least one in five female veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has screened positive for military sexual trauma once back home, according to VA records. And these findings only count women who go to the VA for help, thus it is anticipated that many more women veterans are struggling silently.
As a recent Time magazine article pointed out, even women never deployed to war zones have trouble recovering from certain military wounds.
The article tells of a 25-year-old former Air Force member who was raped by a fellow service member and then bullied by another into dropping criminal charges. The woman, who was voted class clown in high school not so long ago, now avoids crowds. She sought treatment at two big-city veterans’ hospitals but quickly left one in part because the waiting room was swarming with male veterans.
She told Time they made her feel unsafe, a sentiment often expressed by the 22 percent of women seeking care at the VA who have experienced sexual trauma — and who are nine times more likely to suffer from PTSD, which along with other mental-health issues, affects roughly 1 in 10 soldiers returning from Iraq.
Ann LeFevre, military sexual trauma coordinator at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System in California, told Kaiser Health News that many young female veterans coming home from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan often do not show up for their first VA appointments, if they show up at all.
“They think they’re alone and they don’t want to talk about it,” LeFevre said. “Especially with new returners, it takes a lot to get them on the VA campus. It can remind them of their base where the assault occurred.”
Kaiser Health News also details that while assault is against the discipline and values of the armed forces, experts have stated that the problem of women being assaulted in the military is exacerbated after victims report their attack.
Often such allegations are met with skepticism or worse – retaliation. So even after they are finished serving in the military, many sexual assault victims are reluctant to come forward with their stories, or seek help dealing with problems from the VA, as the system is intertwined with the military.
“There’s a disconnect between what survivors believe they need and the educated treatment community as to what is necessary and helpful,” Mylea Charvat, a fellow in clinical neuroscience with the Stanford School of Medicine, told Kaiser Health News.
Charvat, who began her career in the VA system after 9/11, has worked with veterans for a decade.
She admits that the system is “slow to respond” to the needs of women. “Historically, it’s not a highly responsive system. It’s huge, it’s bureaucratic,” she said. “I can understand women being hesitant to seek care, and frankly, a lot of men, too.”
In 2012, the Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office estimated that 26,000 cases of “unwanted sexual contact” occurred. Shockingly, the amount of those cases that were reported was only about 13 percent.
Women Veterans Seek Solace Outside Military Walls
Jessie de Leon, who was raped while serving as an Army medic in Bamberg, Germany, from 2007 to 2009, says the military failed her twice. Once, because her assault happened, and again after what she says was an inadequate response from the military. She, like other women veterans, had to seek her own means of treatment , according the Kaiser Health News.
“For a while it’s just like I was numb to the world. Just fake happiness, drug-induced happiness,” de Leon told Kaiser Health News. “I didn’t realize that this process was going to be more hindering to me in trying to recover from it than it was helping me.”
After therapists at the West Palm Beach VA in de Leon’s home state did not seem to assist her in overcoming the effects of her rape, and recommended treatment consisting of prescription drugs for sleeping, anxiety and depression, she sought help elsewhere.
Her search led her to the Healing Horse Therapy Center located in Loxahatchee, Fla., 15 minutes from her home. There she found she was not alone, as there were other female veterans receiving treatment after a failed encounter with the VA.
De Leon, who has a young son, was able to get her life back on track. She graduated from nursing school says her treatment outside the VA worked.
“No one was forcing you to talk; nobody was saying you had to do anything,” de Leon said of the therapy center. “I didn’t realize you could gain so much confidence, gain so much self-motivation, get back your self-esteem, just by working with a horse, who never said a word to you.”
Harvard psychologist Paula Caplan has worked with hundreds of veterans. Many of these women have stories similar to deLeon, in which the VA pushed prescription drugs that failed them, along with an inadequate examination of the impact of the assaults on victims.
“Women already, so often, feel that they don’t belong in the military, either they’re not wanted or they have to prove to other people or themselves that they deserve to be there,” Caplan told Kaiser Health News. “When you are traumatized and you’re devastated . . . then you think, ‘But I have military training, I’m supposed to be tough, I’m supposed to be resilient.’”
The military needs to consider how to best help women veterans, especially since they are playing a larger role in today’s military. It is estimated that 15 percent of the armed forces is comprised of women. These women are indispensable, and our country owes it to them to help them get the help they need.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News’ editorial policy.