(83) Just us Girls: The Plight of the Female Veteran

Molly, the service dog

Golly, Miss Molly

A Blog about a Service Dog and her Veteran with PTSD

(Supporting the Veteran and the Family Caregiver)

 Molly and the Female Veteran 

In all of our visits to VA medical facilities, my Veteran and I have only met a few female Veterans. Female Veterans generally sit by themselves and stay quiet while waiting for services. Engaging them in conversation, they are respectful, polite, and thoughtful but rarely initiate eye contact or dialogue.

“Don’t underestimate them,” William said. “There is a lot going on inside of them from war. Sometimes I think women suffer from war more than men Molly's big, brown eyesdo. You should write about them.”

Miss Molly agrees. After all, she is a female, too. She likes being near and around women. In waiting rooms, she will face a female Veteran with those big brown eyes. If a dog could smile, I know she does. She often makes her way out of the waiting room, nuzzling by a female Veteran.

Unique Stressors

The National Center for PTSD wrote about the traumatic stress in female Veterans. The Center cited that women make up 11 percent of Veterans from the Afghanistan and Iraq military operations. In fact, women are the fastest growing group of Veterans. Twenty percent of female Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan and 27 percent from Vietnam have been diagnosed with PTSD. The site lists four main stressors that women face in military service. These include: (1) combat missions, (2) military sexual trauma (MST), (3) feeling alone, and (4) worry about family.

Combat Missions: Women often are not trained for combat missions but find themselves under hostile fire, returning fire, and witnessing the horrors of war firsthand. My husband shared that female medical staff in Vietnam often found themselves in the midst of battle and exposed to trauma just as combat Veterans.

Like many men in the war, the nurse was ill-prepared to survive physically or mentally in a guerrilla war, but she did, at great costs though. The price of being in the war was the same for men: irritability, deep fears, anxieties, anger, and for some, despair.  (Brende and Parson, 155)

Military Sexual Trauma: Many years ago, a female Marine Veteran struggled as one of my graduate students. Her release from the Marines came only months before she began her study. She started the program with excitement and brilliance. Over the next few weeks, she displayed signs of trauma. We talked often after class about her experience in the military. I asked her to talk with my husband, who accompanied me to class frequently. She shared openly with him about MST she suffered. He helped her connect with VA services. She had to overcome not only PTSD and MST but also the stigma of asking for help.

“Marines are strong. We don’t ask for help,” she told me one day.

In the few conversations I have had with other female Veterans, their stories are similar.

Feeling Alone: Often warriors are split off from their comrades and sent to various assignments. The isolation, according to the Center for PTSD, intensifies for women, who are a small population of their assigned units. They often find themselves in a non-supportive environment, which makes coping difficult.

Observing female Veterans in waiting rooms, confirms that those feelings of being alone continue after war. My husband tells me that Vietnam Veterans do not seek help because no one understands their plight unless they fought in war themselves. I imagine this feeling compounds for women because there are so few Veterans, who fought in their war and understand the female’s perspective.

Worry About Family: With year-long deployments often with little notice, being separated from their children creates guilt, heartache, and concern about their children’s welfare. Once returning home, it is reported that many women find it difficult to return to being mom. The Center cites that women often have more conflicts with their children after returning.

VA Assistance 

The VA offers special care for female Veterans. The VA added special services for women, including clinical initiatives, research agendas, and programs just for women. Every VA Hospital in the country now employs a Women Veterans Program Manager. The VA runs the Women Veterans Health Program and the Center for Women Veterans.

The National Center for PTSD suggests that a strong social network is key to helping women heal from war trauma. Offering a caring, listening ear may help begin the healing process just as it did when my former student shared her story with my husband—a fellow Veteran.

Who Can Help?

While I have a heart for all Veterans, I cannot give that support needed by female Veterans because I never served in the military. Many of our readers have served and can help if so inclined. Perhaps the next time you are in a VA waiting room, you might engage a female Veteran and listen to her story.

Molly does this every chance she can. We find that bringing her to William’s trips to the VA helps in reaching out. A rub on her head or a scratch behind her ears does more for the Veteran than a boatload of medication. 

Post your Comments: 

Do you know of other unique stressors women face in a postwar environment? Please comment below. 

Photo credits: pculbrethgraft

Sources cited:

About the blogger 

Dr. Penelope “Penny” Culbreth-Graft is a retired city manager and graduate professor. She lives with her disabled Vietnam Veteran husband, William, and his service dog, Molly, on Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. She writes, paints, cares for her husband, and spends time with her granddaughter.