Women at war: America's female veterans
by Molly Borowitz
If you’re looking for a modern-day complement to the BBC’s exposé on Russia’s female fighter pilots, the NYT has an article this week about American female veterans suffering from PTSD. The author, Damien Cave, emphasizes the specific repercussions the disorder has for women, and the ways in which they experience it differently from men. Vivienne Pacquette, a 52-year-old mom who spent 20 years in the army (including two tours in Iraq), puts it this way: “After all, I’m a soldier, I’m an NCO, I’m a problem solver. What’s it going to look like if I can’t get things straight in my head?”
The number of women veterans who return from active duty with mental disorders is staggering. In June 2008, the number was already over 19,000. In general, Army officers and researchers say, their female soldiers cope with stress just as well as their male soldiers, and the sexes see about the same proportion of mental trauma. Yet Pacquette’s attitude is indicative of a larger trend amongst female veterans suffering from stress disorders; rather than seeking help, they isolate themselves. Aside from the fact that women are more likely to be isolated within their units (since the majority of the deployed population is male), Cave explains that societal pressures and military memories often lead women to view their struggles as invalid—whether because they feel their experiences don’t justify the development of a disorder, or because they worry that the Army won’t recognize mental illness in women, since combat is still nominally an all-male activity. Although Congress has never formally approved changes to the military regulations that bar women from participating in ground combat, commanders of resource-starved units in Iraq and Afghanistan have quietly slipped under the tape and introduced their women soldiers to fighting on the front lines. As such, while female veterans may have performed the same duties as their male counterparts, they are less likely to receive recognition for their services—especially from the public.
As Cave explains, “At home, after completing important jobs in war, women with the disorder often smack up against old-fashioned ignorance: 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.”
Vivienne Pacquette’s story illuminates the extent of the shame women veterans feel at their inability to cope, and the incredible damage it can cause to their mental health. Upon returning from her first tour in Iraq, Mrs. Pacquette woke her twin sister in the middle of the night by leaping out of her bed and crouching on the floor, her arms tensed as if holding a weapon. She was still asleep. A military doctor diagnosed her with PTSD in 2005, but she refused any treatment and in fact returned to Iraq for a second tour six months later, because she “didn’t want anyone to know” about her disorder.
Women suffering from PTSD generally experience all the same symptoms that men do—insomnia, nightmares, fear of crowds, survivor’s guilt, depression, and fits of rage—but often have greater difficulty coping with anger, aggression, and paranoia because they are less socially-acceptable behaviors for women than for men. Dr. Carri-Ann Gibson, head of a veterans’ trauma recovery program in Florida, explains that “the hardest part for women is that they often feel ashamed and guilty because ‘they’re not supposed to punch a wall, they’re not supposed to get aggressive with their spouse.’” In general, she says, people are more forgiving of a man’s struggle to readjust; but they often expect women just to “snap back into domestic routines without any trouble.”
This feeling of guilt is especially pronounced for women with families. After months of isolation on duty (there are rarely multiple women in one unit, and while many female soldiers report that their male colleagues treat them with respect, many others face harassment, ostracization, and a constant pressure to prove themselves), they are conditioned to push other people away, to shut them out. This desire for isolation and the shortened temper it causes make it difficult to interact with loved ones, and especially children. Aimee Sherrod, a 29-year-old mother of two (diagnosed with PTSD but untreated), can’t bring herself to take her children to Chuck E. Cheese or to the park, because open spaces and loud, sudden noises make her too uneasy. She says she is easily frustrated, and often shouts at her children when they’re crying or making too much noise, sometimes threatening to hit her four-year-old.
Unfortunately, the struggle doesn’t end there. The constant emotional battle to maintain one’s calm and interact normally with one’s family is complicated by an incessant barrage of public prejudice and ignorance. Women veterans face questions like, “Did you kill anyone?”, “How was the shopping?”, “In that heat, how did you wear makeup?”, and even “How could you have PTSD when you sat at a desk with a typewriter?” Even women who attempt to combat the stereotypes with bumper stickers or decals identifying them as veterans find themselves passed over—while people thank and by drinks for the men with them, who’ve never put on a uniform. The military and the V.A. are working hard to enlighten the public about women’s roles in Iraq and Afghanistan through advertisements, documentaries, and increased access to medical care, but it’s a slow process. For now, it seems, the women who sacrifice their lives to serve our country are doomed to face prejudice on every front—whether in the deserts of Iraq and Afghanistan or the First-World jungles of the United States.
Photo via the U.S. Department of Defense website.