Women Experience Different Stresses at War and After Homecoming
> 3/19/2007 1:38:24 PM

In a lengthy, well-reported story for this past Sunday's New York Times Magazine, writer Sara Corbett examined the effects of military service in Iraq and Afghanistan on women and how their experiences did and did not differ from their male counterparts. Focusing primarily on the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder, Corbett spoke to many service women and veterans of combat to assess how and why rates of PTSD have been higher in women.

Our current conflict is really the first in American history to provide researchers, both government and civilian, the opportunity to study the effects of war on women. While women had served in combat situations before, this is the first time that their numbers have been large enough--more than 160,000 women deployed to date--to permit a viable study. That research has yet to be completed, but evidence from a Gulf War I study shows that women experienced PTSD at twice the rate of men that served (16% to 8%). The early evidence from this conflict also highlights major differences in why women are experiencing PTSD:

A 2003 report financed by the Department of Defense revealed that nearly one-third of a nationwide sample of female veterans seeking health care through the V.A. said they experienced rape or attempted rape during their service. Of that group, 37 percent said they were raped multiple times, and 14 percent reported they were gang-raped. Perhaps even more tellingly, a small study financed by the V.A. following the gulf war suggests that rates of both sexual harassment and assault rise during wartime. The researchers who carried out this study also looked at the prevalence of PTSD symptoms - including flashbacks, nightmares, emotional numbing and round-the-clock anxiety - and found that women who endured sexual assault were more likely to develop PTSD than those who were exposed to combat.

Corbett shows through her research that sexual assault and sexual harassment are a major problem for women who are serving overseas. Their experiences of being assaulted or humiliated are very often compounded by failure of superiors to do anything about the inappropriate and illegal behavior. When this occurs in a war situation, where even the day-to-day stress has been shown to be enough to cause severe psychological problems, it sets the table for a harrowing ordeal that most men never even need consider.

Many of the women in the article also discuss the added difficulties of returning to their rolls as mothers upon completing their tours. Women, more so than men, typically serve as what Corbett refers to as the emotional center of their families. This role requires an emotional commitment that women suffering from PTSD feel unable to meet. Women in the article describe fear at seeing their children and crippling anxiety when performing even the most mundane of family tasks.

Iraq, in many ways, has been the first conflict that put active duty women into harms way, even as protocol still forbids them from serving on the front line. Their experiences in war, Corbett has shown, are drastically different many times than their male counterparts. What is clear from this article is that our armed forces need to do more to protect women, not from the enemy, but from many of the men that they consider their comrades. The sheer number of women who have suffered sexual assault or harassment calls into question the perhaps larger number that has remained silent. This situation is only compounding morale problems, and is creating a wholly unnecessary and avoidable increase in mental health problems among female troops. These are criminal and horrendous actions that need to be treated as such, before they will ever abate. Aside from that however, we need to continue to look at the ways that PTSD effects men and women differently after returning from combat, and as there are more women serving and therefore more women who will develop symptoms, we need to provide more treatment programs aimed specifically at meeting the needs of female veterans. It is the least we can do for the sacrifices that they have made.

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