Often when Americans think of problems that military veterans may face such as post-traumatic stress disorder, homelessness or joblessness, they are inclined to think of men. But experts in health care and related fields say that women who have served in the military must deal with these as well.
Psychological disorders resulting from military service may present themselves differently in women than in men, but are just as real and just as disabling, said Katherine Sharpe Jones, military sexual trauma coordinator at the Atlanta Veterans Administration Medical Center. Jones was the keynote speaker at the Women Veterans Resource Summit sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau June 28 on Georgia Perimeter College’s Decatur campus.
The purpose of the summit was to provide women veterans, service providers and employers with comprehensive information and resource tools related to the effective treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and military sexual trauma.
Discussing what she called “the darker side of military service,” Jones said that 22 to 23 percent of women who served in the military report having been victims of sexual trauma while serving. She added that because sexual trauma often is unreported, actual figures may be much higher. “Many just find it too difficult and painful to come forward and admit that they have been sexually abused.”
Jones said that veterans’ caregivers today are dealing with psychological disturbances that had not been identified in the 1970s. “Soldiers coming home from Vietnam obviously were having problems, but until the 1980s post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD didn’t have a name.” She said the magnitude of sexual abuse within the military also was not recognized 40 years ago.
Because they can significantly impair a person’s ability to function, Jones said, psychological disorders must be treated effectively before a person returning from the military can hold a job or have healthy, normal relationships. Symptoms may include nightmares and flashbacks, sleep disturbances, excessive safety concerns, emotional numbing—especially blocking out pleasant emotions—and avoidance of people or situations that bring back unpleasant memories.
“Women who have been sexually abused, for example, may avoid men altogether even to the point of refusing to get on an elevator with a man,” Jones said, adding that ironically inappropriate sexual behavior may also be a symptom of sexual abuse.
Jones told the representatives of organizations that serve veterans that it is especially important that they understand these symptom because they may interfere with the veteran’s ability to receive treatment. “It’s necessary to have an environment where the veteran can feel safe and comfortable so she will be willing and able to come in for the care she needs.”
Although the Veterans Administration has been at the forefront of finding appropriate treatment for combat related illnesses—physical and psychological—Jones said, the number of veterans needing treatment is great so the VA wants other agencies to know as much as possible about the best ways to serve them.
Paulette Norvel Lewis, regional administrator of the Women’s Bureau, introduced the agency’s new guide, Trauma-Informed Care for Women Veterans Experiencing Homelessness, which is designed to assist service providers in delivering more effective services to women veterans.
Lewis said female veterans assaulted in the military are nine times more likely than other veterans to exhibit PTSD symptoms, are more likely to have problems with drugs and alcohol, have lower economic and educational outcomes, experience difficulty maintaining relationships, housing and employment.
Women are often the ones expected to care for children and other family members, Lewis said, but those struggling with the effects of trauma must become healthy before they can be effective mothers, wives and adult children of elderly parents. “You know how in the airplane safety briefing they tell you to put your own oxygen mask on before assisting someone else? It’s the same in life; you have to get yourself straight before you can help someone else.”