U.S. women veterans work to survive traumatic event PTSD

Jessica Buchleitner – WNN Features

U.S. woman infantry soldier
A U.S. woman infantry soldier is just as likely to have PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as men, and may actually experience more trauma than others who are returning home from a conflict zone. Women who witness or experience traumatic events can suffer from numerous stress symptoms affecting mental health. Trauma to women in the military can also come from sexual assault (known as MST – Military Sexual Trauma) while working or training inside a military environment. Image: USgov

(WNN) San Francisco, California, UNITED STATES, AMERICAS: In January 2013, the Pentagon lifted its ban on women in front-line combat roles in a historic step toward gender equality in the U.S. armed forces after 11 years of nonstop war, during which the front lines were often not clearly defined. With women becoming increasingly more involved with the military, many veterans are grappling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder resulting from various military and war situations, some including sexual violence.

“You think it’s all good until the complete bottom falls out of your world. You’ll be laughing and having a good time and suddenly you’re in full panic mode and you don’t know what triggered it”.

Jaffey, a former Marine, was a sole survivor when her convoy struck a roadside bomb in Iraq in 2006. The other three men she traveled with were killed on impact.

“I didn’t consider the situation much until I got home and then I started to have dreams about it. I had ‘survivor’s’ guilt. I kept questioning what my life meant. I regressed to a point where a simple outing at a restaurant became a sweaty nightmare. I felt out of touch with reality- like I was losing my mind”.

The reality of PTSD

Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs after a person has experienced a traumatic event or experienced an extended situation where their life was threatened. PTSD can arise from several situations, the most common being, combat exposure, Child sexual or physical abuse, terrorist attacks, sexual or physical assault, or serious accidents, like a car wreck and natural disasters.

Symptoms of the stress disorder can manifest in various ways. Male and Female veterans experience flashbacks, nightmares, paranoia, anxiety, fits of rage, insomnia, depression and a phenomenon known as ‘survivor’s guilt’. They also appear fearful and anxious in crowds.

Jaffey remembers the guilt all too well.

“I wondered why I was the only one that lived. Why was I special? What could I offer anyone that that the others could not. Two of the men that died in my group were fathers and I have no children. I just kept asking ‘why me?”.

With the number of women serving in the military doubling in the last 30 years, The United States Department of Veterans Affairs reported 11 percent of Veterans from the Afghanistan and Iraq military operations were women in 2008. As of 2009, the VA (Veterans Administration) reported more than 350,000 women serving. Women currently make up the fastest growing group of veterans. Since 2001 more than 230,000 women have served in Afghanistan or Iraq, making up nearly 15 percent of the deployed forces there.

Among women Veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Department of Veterans Affairs reports that 20 percent have been diagnosed with PTSD. This is not a new phenomenon. A Prevalence data on PTSD in women Vietnam Veterans from the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study (NVVRS), reveal the extensive impact: Of the 1,632 Vietnam Veterans in the study, 432 were women who had served in or around Vietnam between 1964 and 1975. The study found that approximately 27 percent of women Vietnam Veterans suffered from PTSD sometime during their postwar lives. To compare, in men who served in Vietnam, the lifetime rate of PTSD was 31 percent. Both genders have struggled with PTSD at a closely equal rate.

Women have experienced the same psychological and emotional trauma as their male counterparts, but the VA has only begun to pay attention to their gender-specific needs.

“When people are experiencing PTSD, they are not only having traumatic memories but they are experiencing a sense of constant or near constant threat and feelings that their survival is still in danger. When trauma occurs and certain things happen that threaten a person’s survival- its like an alarm activating all the time” said Julian Ford, Ph.D., creator of Target psychosocial intervention model for adult, adolescent, and child traumatic stress disorders.

Military Sexual Trauma (MST)

Lynette signed up for the Navy in 1979 when she was 17 years old. Her first few years were exciting: She went to school, learned several trades and held various positions. It increased her confidence and set her on an ideal career path. But all that changed one night nearly one year later.

Stationed in Virginia Beach, Lynette had completed a 12 hour (2p.m. to 2.a.m.) shift on base and was walking back to the barracks when a man jumped out from behind a pile steam pipes and held a knife to her throat.

“He assaulted me with that knife to my neck. It was sharp and I didn’t fight – I just let it happen. I could not get away from him.”

Though Lynette never saw the face of her attacker, she knew he was a member of the Navy. “I knew he was in the Navy because it happened on base and only Navy had access to the area I was in. What scared me the most is I didn’t know WHO he could be- perhaps my commanding officer or one of the other men I worked with?”

Lynette immediately moved off base. Horrified and humiliated, she decided not to breathe a word of the incident to anyone for fear that she would be blamed or the attacker, who perhaps was among her, would retaliate.

“I was trying to cut across a field instead of taking a lighted sidewalk back to the barracks. I didn’t want anyone to know because I was embarrassed that it happened. I knew they would blame me for not taking the sidewalk so I didn’t tell anyone. There was another woman in my same situation and she did report her incident and the guys would snicker at her when she walked by. I didn’t want that stigma. Even when I had to go to medical because the perpetrator gave me a urinary tract infection, I didn’t tell anyone”.

A recent study by researchers at University of California San Francisco, determined that women veterans reporting Military Sexual Trauma (MST) were four times more likely to develop PTSD than women not reporting Military Sexual Trauma (MST).

The study examined the health records of 213,803 veterans who were first-time users of the VA health care system. Of all the veterans, 74,493 were diagnosed with PTSD. Of the 7,255 women in that group, 2,240 women reported MST.

U.S. troops in deployment
U.S. troops, including female military members, get on a military transport airplane during deployment to conflict zone in Afghanistan. Image: USgov

Military Sexual Trauma (MST) refers to both sexual harassment and sexual assault that occurs in military settings. Both men and women can experience military sexual trauma and the perpetrator can be of the same or of the opposite gender. Sexual trauma in the military does not occur only during training or peacetime and in fact, the stress of war may be associated with increases in rates of sexual harassment and assault.

The difficulty of MST is it most often occurs in a setting where the victim lives and works, forcing victims to often continue to live and work in close proximity with their perpetrators. It is common in these cases for victims to be in a position where they are relying on their perpetrators (or associates of the perpetrator) to provide for basic needs including medical and psychological care. In addition, victims are often forced to choose between continuing military careers during which they are forced to have frequent contact with their perpetrators or are forced to sacrifice their career goals in order to protect themselves from future victimization.

Perhaps the most traumatizing aspect of MST is the victims are reluctant to report sexual trauma due to the stigma they may encounter from colleagues. The military values order and respects in ranks. Reporting a senior officer for misconduct could potentially backfire against a lower ranking female officer.

“I’ve always believed that my career in the Navy prospered because I left this alone. I never reported the crime and I believe if I had, my career would not have blossomed. They would have seen me as a weak link. At the time, that’s how they viewed those kind of cases. I had recurring urinary tract infections long after the incident and I wondered if that rewired my body. I did not show any of the signs, I wanted to just hide it and move on”.

Ford says it is common for these women to not report the abuse.

“Some of these women don’t seek treatment because they fear being blamed for making disclosures. They don’t want to compromise their military career. Exposing this trauma has, in the past, lead to adverse consequences for the victim. They often believe that they did something wrong, so they are also carrying a lot of guilt and shame. Sexual violence in the military is an invisible trauma. These women have been horribly victimized and in many cases have to redress. These women also carry the burden of guilt and shame as well as a deep sense of anger and injustice that can really permeate a woman’s life.”

Treatment and Recovery- emerging methods

Today, Lynette experiences ranges of PTSD symptoms, but believes it is treatable. She’s come a long way over the years and like Jaffey, she is also fed up with the weak portrayal of women with PTSD in the media.

Treatment surrounding PTSD for veterans is a controversial subject these days as the VA is accused of not providing adequate counseling, over prescribing medications, and denying veteran disability claims.

“I’m not saying the VA is all bad, they are trying” said Jaffey, “but it seems the answer to the stress problem is always medications. PTSD is too complex. We need skills we can use. Meds are not a long term, solution for us”.

Alternative treatment methods are evolving, as evidenced by Dr. Julian Ford’s Target psychosocial intervention model for adult, adolescent, and child traumatic stress disorders.

“PTSD is an adaptive reaction to a genuine threat. The individual simply does not know how to shift out of this survival mode. Treatment should be designed to help them out of that. What we did was develop a wakeup call for people to use their thinking processes to be able to reset that alarm in the brain to reduce the symptoms of PTSD. It’s a way of dealing with PTSD without having to go back to the specific memories but using the mind to reset this part of the brain so it’s not in survival or emergency mode. That is the biggest issue for a person with PTSD is they can’t stop reacting- even small things in their life cause them to revert to survival mode, thus producing the feelings to anxiety, anger and tension”.

According to recent studies – high levels of social support after the war were important for those women Veterans. Having someone to talk to and someone who really cared helped women to adjust better to postwar life. It was also important for the returning women Veterans to feel that they could rely on others to assist them with tasks in times of need. Veterans who had this form of support suffered less from PTSD.

In response to the recent increase in women Veterans, the VA has put in place a number of health care and research programs just for women. This includes the Women Veterans Health Program and the Center for Women Veterans. Every VA in this country now has a Women Veterans Program Manager.

Alternative methods are surfacing as well. Tiffany Schneider, Ph.D, Founder and Managing Director of the Healing For People alternative health clinic located in the San Francisco Bay Area is currently offering complementary holistic treatment for female vets afflicted with PTSD in order to spear head a new approach to treatment and recovery.

“We are offering free treatment to women that have experienced Military Sexual Assault and other kinds of trauma for veterans because we want to show that our method of therapy works for PTSD. We reduce the traumatic experiences to pure energy and give that person the opportunity to release it themselves. We’re not releasing it for them. We’re creating a situation where they are doing it by themselves.”

Schneider and her colleagues have treated women stricken with PTSD due to sexual violence, incestual abuse, domestic violence and other situations where they are emotionally repressed.

“The current treatments out there just really are not giving fantastic results. The results that we are getting with the trauma we are treating are spectacular. There is a difference between coping with something and having it be irrelevant for the rest of your life. The goal is to make PTSD irrelevant, rather than ‘I can live with this’” said Schneider.

Lynette and Jaffey feel the media has a way of victimizing female veterans concerning treatment. Both agree that healing from PTSD is possible given the right tools.

“With the right treatment, we can prosper. We are not damaged. We are not broken, weak or poor. We are soldiers and always will be soldiers. Let’s face it- sometimes there are happy endings. We just need to get over that” said Jaffey.

Lynette believes veterans are worth more than the news presents.

“I get tired of seeing so many news articles in the media of women suffering. It always emphasizes us as being damaged and broken. It undermines our role as equals to our male counterparts. I have been through a lot. I’m not perfect, but I’m managing just fine thanks to all the support I’ve had.”


Darrah Westrup, Ph.D., a recognized authority on the treatment of PTSD and other trauma-related problems, discusses the mental health needs of women who have served in the military with emphasis on the emergent needs of Iraq and Afghanistan women veterans. When a woman suffers from PTSD what are the most effective clinical treatments for them? This event is part of the series: “Treating the Invisible Wounds of War: Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans, Families and Care Providers.” As a clinical psychologist with the National Center for PTSD at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System in California Westrup serves as attending psychologist at the Women’s Trauma Recovery Program, a ten-bed, sixty-day residential treatment program for women veterans with military-related PTSD. She is also program director of the Outpatient Women’s Mental Health Center. Westrup has clinical and research expertise in the areas of PTSD, substance abuse, stalking behavior, and experiential avoidance as it relates to psychological dysfunction. This video is a UCTelevision production.


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As a human rights journalist working closely with WNN – Women News Network, Jessica Buchleitner has interviewed victims of sexual violence around the globe for her upcoming book “50 Women.” At the United Nations 56th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women she served as an NGO delegate where she met one-on-one with victims advocates from 12 separate countries. She also serves on the Board of Directors of San Francisco (U.S.) based UN Non-governmental organization WIN – Women’s Intercultural Network. You can follow her on Twitter @50womenproject


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