PTSD & Substance Abuse Committee Update January/February 2016

Photo Soldier

VVA’s Committee on PTSD and Substance Abuse recognizes—and will do what they can to help—the underserved and under-publicized struggles damaging their sisters-in-arms.

The realities of PTSD and Military Sexual Trauma, the ravages of substance abuse, and the tragedy of veteran suicide: information and services about the needs of active-duty women and women veterans continues to be inadequate. A strong national defense can only be ensured by dealing with all the forces impacting all the members of our military. Resiliency is strengthened by honestly addressing the good, the bad, and the ugly of military life, war, and life after the military.

According to the recent Disabled American Veterans report, “Women Veterans: The Long Journey Home, ” there are “serious gaps in every aspect of the programs that serve women, including health care, employment, finance, housing, social issues and the eradication of sexual assault. The vast majority of these deficiencies results from a disregard for the differing needs of women veterans and a focusing on the 80 percent solution for men who dominate in both numbers and public consciousness.”

Most suicide research has focused exclusively on men. Many women veterans are telling us that male veterans have difficulty believing that women experience “real” combat or have “real” PTSD. Suicide numbers for women who have served are stunning. According to the VA, “the increased risk of suicide among female veterans when compared to the U.S. female population was higher than that observed when male veterans were compared to the U.S. male population, regardless of deployment status.” Emily Wax-Thibodeaux, reporting for the Washington Post , offered this startling fact: “Female veterans die by suicide at nearly six times the rate of female civilians.” And the New York Daily News reported that the numbers are highest among young veterans: “Female vets ages 18 to 29 kill themselves almost 12 times as often as young women who haven’t served.” 

In trying to understand this situation, a committee member recently spoke with a retired female Army officer who served in Germany and in Operation Desert Shield. Her experience in the military was illuminating. She told him that she could “understand how the only way out would be suicide. In a deployment in Germany, 1986 and 1989, our new recruits were being preyed upon by E-6s and E-7s. Even the sergeant major was a perpetrator.”

When she followed up with the recruits to pursue charges, she said “the women felt it would make things worse, so they refused to say more.” Then, as recently as a few years ago, several male friends of her daughter, a potential female candidate to West Point, told her how women were being treated there and advised her to not go through with her lifelong dream. Her daughter did not pursue the appointment.

Current statistics and reports indicate that seeking behavioral health care continues to be seen by many women as a weakness and a career killer. For too many women, both the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs continue to be guys’ clubs.

The events that augur PTSD and too often result in suicide or attempted suicide are complex and varied. But it can potentially be concluded that a woman whose contributions are marginalized and minimized during or after her service can and often do feed—and perhaps magnify—a sense of worthlessness, of being a burden on family and friends. This serves to foster an environment in which the female warrior or veteran is led to believe she just doesn’t belong. Combat is difficult enough without having to handle negative perceptions and a sexually aggressive environment.

An author who reported extensively from Afghanistan, Gayle Tzemach-Lemmon, in an article by Stacy Barei of the Huffington Post , noted: “I don’t think women were looking for credit for what they did, but they were looking for understanding. It was hard for women to come back home and those at home have no idea what they’ve done. That’s very hard in terms of reintegrating.”

The committee will continue to work with the VVA Women Veterans Committee to educate citizens, elected officials, and military leaders about the very real need to confront injustices to female active-duty troops and veterans.


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