(WOMENSENEWS)–On Veterans Day, we remember the bodies of dead servicemembers but often overlook the deaths of the souls of those who physically live on after their time at war.
There are many more men than women in this category, because there are far more men in the military.
But the women–some of whom I have met and interviewed as part of my research for essays, plays and a forthcoming book about war veterans–carry special burdens that we can all help to lighten.
Just think about the implications of being expected to live up to standards embodied in the injunction to "take it like a man."
I wrote my half-hour play, "WarandTherapy," in 2009 out of my concern about female vets’ struggles and because I was inspired particularly by the story of one of my interviewees, Michelle Dillow.
In the play, Julia is a veteran who struggles over how to handle an array of emotions, some of which were provoked by seeing friends killed in Afghanistan and living through repeated life-threatening events there. Other emotions have arisen since she returned home from war.
Julia is devastated, as are most people who are exposed to the violence and the losses that go with war. But she thinks her varying anguish, rage, fear and numbness are signs that she is crazy.
More Mental Disorder Diagnoses
Even outside of war, women, more often than men, have their feelings classified as signs of a mental disorder.
Julia is ashamed of being insufficiently tough and fears that if cracks appear in the emotional armor she has tried to don at war, her humanity will be labeled weakness, she will be considered insufficiently masculine and these labels will be used to demean other military women.
Regardless of their sex, soldiers are expected to cover up their feelings that fall outside of caring about fellow soldiers.
But female soldiers get a second set of mixed signals: "You’re lucky we let you into the military at all." "You cannot possibly be as strong or stoic as a man and even if you could, you really shouldn’t because both physical strength and emotional toughness aren’t feminine."
Those who have suffered the sexual assaults or humiliating and demeaning comments that are extremely common in the military often have a hard time talking about it. Pressures to stay silent in order to protect perpetrators who are their peers or superior officers parallel the pressures on civilian women and girls to protect perpetrators in their families or workplaces, because to speak up is to risk damaging the veneer of "closely-knit team" or happy "family" and to risk retribution.
Many women talk about the crazy-making expectations placed on them to show that they can be John Wayne to the nth power, out-tough the guys.
Those who do that are likely to be called lesbian (certainly still dangerous, especially in the American military) or at least mocked for failing to be feminine enough.
So there is a double bind. Women who fail to suppress their love and longing for the children, partners, parents, siblings or friends they have left behind may avoid being called unwomanly. But by letting such feelings show, they are likely to be called too weak to deserve to be servicemembers. Also, letting normal, healthy feelings show can have deeply disturbing consequences. For instance, some military therapists have put female soldiers on psychiatric drugs because they were devastated to be separated by deployment from their children.
"WarandTherapy" has had 13 performances in the U.S. and Canada this year, giving audiences a chance to hear a female veteran describe the shame she feels and the chasm between her and the loved ones who do not know what happened to her when she was at war. It provides an opportunity to recognize what it is like to be a woman who has been in combat and to feel more connected to her.
But this play cannot reach everyone. So as Veterans Day approaches, consider finding a woman who has come back from war or is currently serving and tell her that if she wants to talk, you want to hear her story.
This is an important part of rejoining a community that owes her the chance to unburden secrets she may consider shameful, too "feminine," too unfeminine or in other ways unworthy.
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Paula J. Caplan is a psychologist, playwright and Fellow in the Women and Public Policy Program, Kennedy School of Government, and Associate of the DuBois Institute, both at Harvard University. Her book, "When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Vets," will be published by MIT Press in the spring of 2011.