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November/ December 2013 Women, War, and PTSD

Are female warriors more likely to be traumatized by combat?

By Laura Kasinof

In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, when less than 1 percent of Americans served on active military duty in an all-volunteer army, the U.S. armed forces relied more than ever on female soldiers in the field to perform vital tasks and to increase the quality of enlisted soldiers. In 2005, when House Republicans introduced language in the annual defense authorization bill that would have restricted women’s roles in warfare, it was Donald Rumsfeld and top leaders of the military who lobbied fiercely against it. The offending language was lifted from the bill in short order.

The next major move toward opening up combat roles to women came in 2011, when the Military Leadership Diversity Commission, convened by Congress three years earlier, released a report recommending that the ban on women in combat be eliminated entirely. The report cited primarily the roles that women were already playing on the front lines, and only briefly alluded to issues surrounding mental health. It addressed the subject only long enough to dismiss it: women were not more likely than men to develop PTSD, the commission found, citing as evidence a single Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) study that found conflicting results about gender differences in PTSD rates and a New York Times article quoting DOD officials on the subject.

During Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s short tenure at the department, the appropriate role of women in wartime stayed on the agenda. In February 2012, the DOD announced that it would open up 14,325 positions to women within combat units that had previously been off-limits, and the following January, Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey announced the elimination of the ban on women in combat. “When I went to the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, I saw a lot of women who were out there in uniform, pretty much who were performing a lot of roles men had formally performed,” Panetta told me over the phone from his office at the Panetta Institute in Northern California. “They were there on the front lines. I saw them. I had a chance to talk to them. I was always very impressed by their spirit and desire to serve. They performed well. They did the job.… Deep down, I had a real sense of injustice that they weren’t being given at least a chance to seek those positions.”

While the decision to lift the ban did not open up all positions to female soldiers at once, it did jump-start a series of tough conversations. All branches of the armed forces must now spend the next two years (the process is slated to be finished by January 2016) deciding how they will integrate women. This is especially crucial in the Army and the Marine Corps. Each branch must defend its decisions to both the DOD and Congress in cases where certain positions will remain only available to men. Jon Aytes, head of the Military Personnel Policy Branch for the Marine Corps, said the process of deciding which roles will be opened to women is “deliberate” and “measured,” and will include research into how combat affects a woman’s mental health. “You got to look at the whole body and whole person,” Aytes said. “There is a mental capacity that goes into that. That is something that we … need to make sure we look at as people are coming back.”

Panetta, however, resisted the idea of considering research on gender differences in PTSD when deciding which combat roles will be open to women. His position reflects the feelings of many in our society, both among civil rights activists and the military. After all, suggesting that women may be somehow weaker, or more psychologically fragile, has been and remains an unsavory idea, both politically and socially. “From what I saw as secretary, I am absolutely convinced that women can be just as tough as men when it comes to dealing with these kinds of issues,” Panetta said.

But comparing the relative “toughness” of men and women may not be the best way of looking at the question. The truth is, men and women have demonstrably different experiences both at war and at home. In the barracks, on the battlefield, and in homecoming gatherings, female soldiers are often the extreme minority among their peers and are therefore treated differently, both socially and professionally. They are not, almost by definition, “brothers in arms.” While some female soldiers report bonding deeply with their fellow male soldiers, others say they spend their deployments feeling alienated, marginalized, or outright threatened by their comrades; women are disproportionately the victims of rape, sexual assault, and harassment by fellow soldiers. Upon returning home—an event that, ironically, often triggers symptoms of PTSD in both men and women—the female experience is also arguably different from the male one, in part because of the social expectations of what a veteran looks like, and in part because of the roles that women, as mothers and often primary caregivers, are expected to fulfill in America.

At veterans’ events, Pacanowski, the Iraq veteran, said it is often assumed that she is a girlfriend or wife of a combat veteran, not one herself. Stacy Keyte, a former member of the Texas National Guard who also served in Iraq, reiterated the point: “It’s something when you don’t see very many pictures of women in uniform hugging their children or being welcomed by their children,” she said. “Commercials, the touching ones, are always showing the guy and his baby. What about the mothers who leave their infants? I think it would help if there was just some acknowledgment.”


Homecoming: Iraq War veteran Jennifer Pacanowski reading her writing in May 2012 at an event sponsored by Warrior Writers, a nonprofit helping veterans express themselves through art.

Kimberly Olson, a retired Air Force colonel and director of Grace After Fire, a nonprofit organization in Fort Worth, Texas, that helps female veterans reintegrate into society, said social expectations are hugely important. “When you deploy, you are trained to shoot, survive, to do your job. You aren’t trained to the classic female roles. We don’t say, ‘Be more nurturing.’ No, [you] enter into a very male, aggressive structure,” she said. “Those same traits don’t help re-bonding with your two-year-old, or your loving relationship with your husband. [A female veteran] has to find that on her own after being a woman again after being a warrior.”

Keyte, for example, was married and caring for her one-year-old son when she was called to Fort Hood in 2005 to train before being deployed to Iraq. “That was probably one of the hardest things I have had to do, was to leave him,” she said, referring to her son. “You were worried about yourself, and it’s hard to explain but I was more worried about my son.” Within hours after Keyte arrived in Tikrit, Iraq, the base came under direct shelling and rocket attacks—assaults that continued to occur sporadically throughout her deployment. To deal with the situation, Keyte said, she “created a shell,” emotionally.

Laura Kasinof is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C., where she is at work on a book about her three years as a reporter in Yemen. The reporting for this story was generously supported by the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

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