Damien Cave writes in the New York Times about female veterans with stress disorders, and the unique challenges they face upon returning home.
Cave writes that never before has the United States witnessed so many female veterans affected by the crippling nature of stress disorders. As of June 2008, almost 20,000 female veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan had received diagnoses of mental disorders from the Department of Veterans Affairs, including more than 8,000 women with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder — and this number does not include troops still abroad, or those who have never sought help from the Veterans Affairs system. These difficulties are a result of a “historic shift,” where women are finding themselves on the front line more often than ever before—and distinguishing themselves there.
Cave describes the struggle of veteran Vivienne Pacquette, who has seen everything from a suicide bomber exploding a nearby tent to a mortar attack hitting the motor pool where her unit worked, where she saw friends blown up “beyond recognition.”
Recalling the scene nearly five years later, Mrs. Pacquette’s dark brown eyes began darting back and forth, as if looking for another rocket. She was in St. Croix, the island where she grew up, but her body stiffened like a wound coil — releasing only after her twin sister brought their faces together, in a silent hug that lasted several minutes.
Her mind had returned to the moment. And this emotional flashback is just one in a long list of post-traumatic stress symptoms that female veterans now know intimately. Fits of rage, insomnia, nightmares, depression, survivor’s guilt, fear of crowds — women with the disorder, like men, can and do get it all.
Although early research suggests that rates of stress disorders for men and women veterans are the same, Cave points out that the way men and women deal with their stress disorders upon return can be very different. As a result of military life and the way people receive women veterans when they return home, women, lacking the support system many male soldiers have, are much more likely to isolate themselves, or “go into hiding,” as Cave puts it. Patricia Resick, director of the Women’s Health Sciences at the National Center for P.T.S.D, says, “Some of the issues come up because they’re not given the combat title even though they may be out on patrol standing next to the men. … People underestimate what these women have been through.”
Cave rightly points out that many of the challenges that women veterans face are related to “old-fashioned ignorance” and stereotypes about the way women should behave. These challenges include “male veterans and friends who do not recognize them as ‘real soldiers’; husbands who have little patience with their avoidance of intimacy; and a society that expects them to be feminine nurturers, not the nurtured.” Indeed, Mrs. Pacquette’s therapist, Dr. Carrie-Ann Gibson, suggests that women feel guilty because they feel like they have no coping mechanisms: “they’re not supposed to punch a wall,” and “they’re not supposed to get aggressive with their spouse,” because society doesn’t accept anger and aggression as ‘normal’ behavior for women.
Because society does not know how to understand the symptoms of PTSD in women, it makes it harder for women to find equilibrium in their social and personal lives. For example, PTSD often makes sufferers want to pull back from loved ones, a symptom that is especially problematic for women with families. Even with support from home, however, female veterans’ struggles are exacerbated by the fact that many people don’t see them as ‘real’ veterans:
For many female veterans today, war and their roles in it must be constantly explained. For those with post-traumatic stress, the constant demand for proof can be particularly maddening — confirming their belief that only the people who were “over there” can understand them here.
Furthermore, while it is often difficult for veterans of both sexes to get the help they need, some therapists, case workers, and female patients also say that women must work harder to prove they saw combat and get the benefits they deserve.