Dr. Amy Street
Dr. Dawne Vogt
Never before has an enlisted woman’s experience of war so closely mirrored that of her male counterpart.
Women have a long history of service in the U.S. military, dating back to the Civil War. Nursing, secretarial work and food services were among the first military jobs opened to women. Today, however, women are serving in support units as truck drivers, gunners, mechanics and more.
Though Pentagon rules dictate that women may not be assigned to ground combat units, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have erased battle lines. Servicewomen are not shielded from the violent and traumatizing action of the front lines.
“Men’s and women’s jobs are increasingly similar in the military and we’re learning that adjustment issues after deployment are pretty similar too,” said Dr. Amy Street, a clinical psychologist with the Women’s Health Sciences Division of the National Center for PTSD.
“One possible explanation for these findings is that combat was a great equalizer of risk.”
— Dr. Dawne Vogt
Dr. Street’s research focuses on the difference between men and women’s reaction following trauma exposure. In the civilian world, scientific literature suggests that women experience posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at about twice the rate of men.
However, the type of traumatic event is one significant factor in explaining that figure, said Dr. Street. Men, for example, tend to be involved in traumatic events like motor vehicle accidents and physical altercations, while women are more likely than men to experience traumatic events like sexual assault. Of these experiences, sexual assault is the one that is most likely to be linked to PTSD.
A study recently released by VA’s National Center for PTSD surveyed 350 female and 250 male servicemembers who had returned from deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan in the previous year.
Dr. Dawne Vogt, a researcher with the Women’s Health Sciences Division of the National Center for PTSD, was the lead author for the study that examined the gender differences in the effects of combat exposure on the mental health.
Did they fire their weapon? Participate in combat missions or patrols? Was their unit attacked by a terrorist?
Combat stressors like the ones listed above were divided into four categories: actual exposure to combat, exposure to bodies or other combat aftermaths, combat-related fear, and exposure to lower-level stressors associated with living and working in a war zone. Dr. Vogt and her colleagues then cross referenced those answers with the Veterans’ mental health self-assessment.
Combat: risk equalizer
Unsurprisingly, the results showed that men experience more combat overall than women, but only at a slightly higher level. Perhaps more surprisingly, the results showed few differences in post-deployment mental health issues.
“One possible explanation for these findings is that combat was a great equalizer of risk. That is due to the persistent, high level of threat, combat exposure may overwhelm the differences between women and men,” said Dr. Vogt. One year after returning from deployment, “women are just as resilient as men to the effects of combat stress.”
This news is unlikely to be very surprising to the women Veterans themselves, Dr. Street said.
“As a part of a volunteer force, female Veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, like all Veterans, are aware of what they are signing up for and are good at their jobs. And, like all Veterans, some struggle with readjustment issues following deployment.”
Now, the responsibility falls on the health care networks to be prepared to treat returning Veterans.
“We want to make sure that providers that treat PTSD know that women returning from combat need to be screened for PTSD,” Dr. Street said. “It’s important for returning Veterans to know too; this is something that applies to woman as well as men.”
Experts think that about 11-20 in 100 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans suffer from PTSD. PTSD occurs in as many as 10 percent of Gulf War Veterans and the number rises to 30 percent among Vietnam Veterans.
There are three major types of symptoms in PTSD sufferers: re-experiencing, avoidance, and hyperarousal. Although there are PTSD self-help resources available for Veterans, a trained professional is the best person to evaluate whether a Veteran has PTSD.
An assessment typically involves questions about events that may have been traumatic for the patient and questions about changes in symptoms experienced before and after the traumatic event.
For those Veterans diagnosed with PTSD, Veterans Health Administration has a variety of treatment options. Therapists, support groups and even a smartphone app are among the resources available to Veterans and their family members coping with PTSD.
June 27th is PTSD Awareness Day. More information about resources for PTSD can be found on the National Center for PTSD’s website.