Female Iraq veterans face struggles at home

10 years ago by in Uncategorized Tagged:

Observer Contributor
March 26, 2008

Sgt. Antoinette V. Scott was born in 1970 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. When she enlisted in the U.S. Army, she didn’t know she would be back at Walter Reed 33 years later, with a brain injury, a hole in the cheek and a broken jaw.

Scott, 37, was injured on Nov. 14, 2003, after being deployed in Iraq for eight months. While driving a five-ton truck in a convoy, Scott suddenly lost control of the vehicle and thought it may be because she ran over a piece of glass or metal.

Photo courtesy of Scott
Antoinette Scott at home with her husband and
one of her daughters.

“I didn’t realize immediately that my vehicle along with myself had been struck by the explosive,” she said.

Time moved quickly after that. Scott said she immediately regained control of the vehicle, and brought the truck to a stop.

“I was kind of dazed so, my assistant driver was like, you know we need to move… we have just been hit, and I am just sitting here and thinking – did this really happen? – not realizing that I have a big hole in my face, I was bleeding profusely and my jaw was broken,” Sgt. Scott said.

She managed to transport the soldiers to their destination before getting medical attention. She was then flown from the Troop Medical Center to Baghdad and ended up in Walter Reed for a 50-stage reconstructive facial surgery.

Equal rights, equal risk

Scott is just one example of the many women in the military who face the same risks as men in the battle ground. In Iraq, almost any military position can be a target and the enemy is not clear. There is no way to hide from roadside and car bombs or from mortars.

Captain Kristin Dabbieri, 30, served as an Army medic in Iraq for one year and said that the Iraq War is different from previous ones in that women are more involved.

“[People] are saying we can’t be in combat roles; we are in combat service support roles. However we are involved in convoy operations, some of our medics are on the front line,” she said.

“So when they say combat, what is considered combat? They need to define a little bit that word, because as much as we were considered combat service, I felt like we were involved in like combat.”

There are currently 95 female U.S. soldiers who have been killed while serving in Iraq and nearly 500 have been wounded. There have already been more female casualties than in the Korean, Vietnam and the first Gulf War combined.

One reason for the larger number of female casualties is that women also make up more of the army. Currently, 15 percent of the military is female; almost double the rate from 25 years ago. Additionally, women make up 20 percent of new military recruits.

Women are now actively engaged in fighting in a way that American women have never been before, said Lory Manning, director of Women in the Military Project of the Women’s Research and Education Institute.

“So there are many of them who have bad wounds, more of them have been killed in combat operations, and they face the same kind of problems as men could with things like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” Manning said.

“I didn’t know I was going through PTSD”

Scott said it took her more than four years to get back to the kind of life she lived before the war. After returning from battle, Scott said she didn’t know she was depressed.

“I didn’t know I was going through PTSD…I didn’t sleep, I woke up afraid. A lot of the time I preferred staying in the dark versus having the light on because over there, when it’s dark and you have your light on you are basically giving your position,” Scott said.

Back home, Scott didn’t sleep for more than two hours at night – a phase that lasted two years. When she was finally able to sleep, she would have nightmares and wake up shouting and in a sweat. But she actually saw that as a positive sign that she was getting better since she was able to sleep.

Photo courtesy
of Drozhzhina
Julia Drozhzhina in Iraq.

Julia Drozhzhina was 18 when she enlisted in the U.S. Army and 21 when she first left for Iraq as a specialist in mental health. In 2005, she spent five months at the Kirkuk airbase in northern Iraq and five months in the military base at Tikrit. She is now in the National Guard, working part time for an organization that helps veterans as part of her military training. She will be re-deployed in Iraq in April 2008.

Like Scott, Drozhzhina was in convoys quite frequently. Once she faced an improvised explosive device attack. She said they couldn’t fire back because they weren’t able to see where the attack came from. No one was injured, but that moment is what she thinks of when she considers her upcoming re-deployment. She said she was depressed for more than two years after she returned from Iraq.

“When I got back I was very, very, angry. I was so angry, I had no patience. I would swear all the time,” Drozhzhina said. “For like 5 months after I got back, whenever I heard a loud sound I thought it was a murder.”

Reaching out the female veterans

Drozhzhina said she decided to see a therapist on her own for her anger. One complaint she has as a veteran is that help is never given at the right time. Before returning home, soldiers must complete the Post Deployment Health Assessment, where they self-assess their physical and mental health, including whether they are feel anger or anxiety over a wound or medical problem. But Drozhzhina said that the assessment isn’t as effective as it should be.

“It’s definitely easy to fall through the cracks because you don’t have to see anybody; they just encourage you to see somebody. So, if you are just in a hurry to get home, of course you are just going to say no to everything,” she said.

Photo courtesy of Drozhzhina
Julia Drozhzhina outside the
Veterans of Foreign Wars building.

Other than the assessment, there is no other mandatory check of a soldier’s mental health. The Department of Veteran Affairs no longer conducts checks of veterans anymore. Veterans must report any physical or mental problem on their own. They have two years to enroll in the VA and take advantage of the benefits they are entitled to, especially health care.

“I had an extensive amount of PTSD treatment but I had to ask for it. Nobody came and knocked on my door and said: ‘Hey, we think you may be experiencing PTSD. This is what you need to do.’” Scott said. “I had to ask for it.”

The Department of Veteran Affairs operates more than 200 Vet centers in the United States and nearly 900 VA medical centers and clinics. But only 22 of them have a center especially dedicated to women. Still, the VA reports that more women are visiting their health care facilities

“Women are more inclined to go and get help than men. Men have always had this image, they are the strong ones, and they cannot ask for help. Women have a stronger bond with women. We can help each other and push each other to get help,” Scott said.

With the increasing number of female veterans, the VA is making plans on how to best serve them in the future, said Irene Trowell-Harris, director of the VA Center for Women Veterans.

“One of the first issues we have is women need to self-identify themselves as being veterans. Many times they don’t because they believe that if they were not in combat, they are not veterans,” Harris said.

The VA estimates there are 1.75 million women veterans, representing seven percent of all veterans. According to the VA, women will make up 10 percent of the total veterans by 2010. In 1986, only 3.8 percent of veterans were female.

So far nobody really knows what the specific needs of women veterans from Iraq will be, especially in terms of mental health. For example, it’s unclear if women react to the stress in the long term the same way that men do, since much of their understanding of PTSD is based on the experience of male veterans, said David Segal, director of the Center for research on Military Organization at the University of Maryland.

“We don’t know if the problems are going to be the same or the appropriate treatments are the same for women veterans,” he said.

The National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is currently conducting a research on the issues and behaviors specific to women at war. But there is very limited information on the gender specific needs of women veterans. The last survey of female veterans was conducted in 1985. A new survey commissioned by the VA started in April 2007, but the results won’t be public until December 2008.

“I don’t think I thought much about my children.”

Manning, from the Women in the Military Project said the caretaker role of women can also be a source of added stress for women in war. Women in the military who are mothers, in particular must immediately attend to their children’s needs when they return.

Many will find themselves in caretaker roles before taking the time to care for themselves or to adjust back to life at home, Manning said.

“I was withdrawn even from my family. …I must have stayed in my room for months. I don’t think I thought much about my children,” Scott said. “I really came home with me on my mind. I had to get better.”

Scott is married and has four girls ranging from age five to 21. But at that time, she wasn’t able to cook, do the laundry or to go to school and communicate with teachers. For the young girls it was fine, she said, because it seemed to her they didn’t really realize what was going on. But she was worried about her oldest daughter, who was a junior in high school. She felt like she needed to pay more attention to her and it was very hard, Scott said.

After returning from war, many female veterans said they would have benefited from four to eight weeks away from their family or any kind of social interaction, just to deal with what happened to them, Trowell-Harris said.

She refers to this recovery as “respect time” or “reintegration time.” But this type of program does not exist yet, though veteran service organizations are petitioning Congress to pass legislation to implement such programs.

Female veterans also deal with the needs of their husbands and boyfriends. For some women, their relationships aren’t the same as they were before deployment.

“I wanted to see my husband and missed my husband when I was gone,” Scott said. “When I came home, I didn’t want to be intimate. It took me some time.”

Capt. Dabbieri saw her husband only once during her yearlong deployment, on a one-week leave. Her husband is not in the Army and she said it was very hard for him to relate to her about what happened in Iraq. They were in marriage counseling for more than six months, she said.

“It was way easier for me to talk to maybe my best friend who was out there at war with me, than to talk to him and he felt left out,” she said. “It created a barrier between us. It took me a long time to get back to where we were, because you are starting over and trying to get to know that person all over again.”

“They just don’t get it.”

Many veterans, not only female vets have said that they find a lot of support from their army comrades, especially those they served with.

“I only wanted to socialize with the people that I served with versus my own family or friends because I felt like we didn’t have anything in common anymore,” Scott said. “I just wanted to avoid the questions, I felt like everybody wanted to know what happened. I didn’t want to talk about it. It hurts. We lost a soldier over there. He was only 21 years old. I didn’t feel normal, it didn’t feel right. So, I just avoided people as much as possible.”

Part of this feeling is based on the fact that most of their friends and family as well as other citizens don’t pay much attention to the war, because life for them is just normal, Manning explained. This first adjustment of returning home from war is actually the same for men and women, she said.

But women veterans in particular have also reported frustration in receiving the same kind of recognition that men get for being soldiers and putting themselves at risk. The popular image of the military remains masculine, experts said.

Drozhzhina said when she returned from Iraq for two weeks leave, she was at an airport in uniform right behind two men also in their uniforms. She said people greeted them and applauded when they walked through, but nobody paid attention to her.

“What the hell… I just came back from the same place, don’t I get the same respect?” she asked. “I went outside the wire and there was an IED, and that guy was probably sitting at a desk… They just assume that I didn’t do anything. It just really made me angry.”

Dabbieri experienced the same discrimination as she was looking for a job. It took her over two years to find one.

“I couldn’t figure it out,” she sad. ”I have a degree, I have great leadership skills, I brought all my soldiers back, no one got killed. We have amazing awards and people couldn’t read my resume or recognize what we did and I would get very ridiculous questions. People just don’t get it. People don’t know exactly what we do.”

Dabbieri said the transition from the army to a civilian career was difficult. She was an officer while serving in Iraq and supervised 21 soldiers. But in civilian life, her experience seems insignificant, she said.

Changes are needed

The changing role of women in the military needs greater attention, female veterans and experts said. David Segal of the Center for Research on Military Organization said that there will be pressure in long term to bring policy in line with what is actually happening on the ground.

“That may mean changing our combat exclusion policies,” Segal said. “To say that women can’t be infantry in the kind of conflict we are operating, is fiction. They are doing infantry type stuff.”

Scott said she tries to stay positive. She said VA programs for women veterans are far better than they were in the past. In the four years since she returned to the United States, female veterans like her have called for greater policy and programming to meet gender-specific needs.

But she said she doubts any policy will be implemented before the female soldiers currently deployed in Iraq return home.

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