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Female Vets Come Home to Second War on Trauma

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Memorial Day offers time to remember U.S. casualties in Iraq and note that this war involves a historic number of women. Once home, many female survivors fight a second war against post-traumatic stress disorder. The VA is studying ways to help.

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Memorial Day offers time to remember U.S. casualties in Iraq and note that this war involves a historic number of women. Once home, many female survivors fight a second war against post-traumatic stress disorder. The VA is studying ways to help.
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Major L.Tammy DuckworthSANTA CLARA, Calif. (WOMENSENEWS)--At a Rotary Club luncheon here recently, Major L. Tammy Duckworth showed a photo of the Black Hawk helicopter she was co-piloting in Iraq as an Army captain from the Illinois Army National Guard. Part of her mission on Nov. 12, 2004, was to drop candy and toys to children.

An arrow pointed to the cockpit where she sat when the rocket-propelled grenade hit it and exploded.

Duckworth woke up 10 days later at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., missing most of both legs, with a shattered right arm, limited movement in her left arm and hand.

"I was just in this despair when I thought I had crashed the helicopter," she said in an interview. "Later on, when I knew that we had been hit and that it wasn't a crash, I was relieved from the depression and all of the pain. I knew that I was fighting to do my job as a soldier and as a pilot until my last conscious breath."

Duckworth, now running for an Illinois seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, is one of 11 female amputees to return from recent U.S. operations in Iraq and elsewhere.

Women make up almost 15 percent of all active duty U. S. military personnel.

Women are excluded by the Pentagon from front-line combat units, but improvised explosive devices, roadside bombs, and small arms fire have struck them and their vehicles from all sides.

U.S. military action in Iraq has caused 2,460 U.S. military fatalities, according to Friday figures on Iraq Coalition Casualties, which operates a Web site that posts lists derived from deaths reported by the Department of Defense.

That death toll includes 52 U.S. servicewomen who died in the Iraqi conflict, 34 by hostile fire. Seven more died as a result of operations in Afghanistan. One died on duty in Djibouti. These 60 deaths outnumber female fatalities in Korea, Viet Nam, and the first Iraq War combined.

Wounded Women at Historic Level

The numbers of wounded women and female amputees, meanwhile, are considerably less than their male counterparts--at least 378 wounded versus 17,490; 11 amputees versus over 400--but they are historic for modern day warfare.

Many of the women wounded in the war undergo months of rehabilitation and face a second, psychological war. Also known as shell shock or combat fatigue, psychiatrists call it post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is currently spending $5 million for what it calls the largest clinical trial ever on psychotherapy for PTSD and the first to focus exclusively on female veterans with the disorder. Researchers recruited 284 women with current or past military experience and symptoms of the condition and tested two kinds of psychotherapy on them.

A Pentagon study published in March on the mental health of soldiers returning from deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan found that more than one- third of U.S. soldiers received psychological counseling. A statistic buried in the study: 23.6 percent of women reported a mental health concern compared with 18.6 percent of men.

Although strides are being made within the VA to treat PTSD, Duckworth says veterans and citizens must keep the pressure on.

"Parades are nice but if that person can't get help for her PTSD, you've not honored her sacrifice."

One Woman Finds a Way to Cope

Ann, a former supply sergeant in the National Guard, found a way to cope with her PTSD earlier this year. Although she's not ready for the public to know her real name, Ann believes in herself again after a long, uphill battle with the legacy of her time on the frontlines in Iraq.

Dr. Darrah Westrup

She told Women's eNews that she lived through daily mortar attacks on her compound; duty at Abu Ghraib Prison when it was under constant fire; and the anxiety of avoiding roadside bombs while driving a five-ton truck to deliver food and equipment to troops in and outside Baghdad.

She returned home in 2004 after a one-year tour of duty. The following year she was given an unexpected assignment. Her unit was sent to New Orleans, where, with no bullet-proof gear, she was threatened and shot at while patrolling streets.

"I had been struggling since I got back from the war," Ann remembers. "After the Katrina deployment, that tremendous fear for my life came back and it was the final straw."

Following a lengthy and frustrating search for psychiatric help both in and outside of the VA, she finally was referred to the Women's Trauma Recovery Program in Menlo Park, Calif., a tiny, 60-day, 10-bed program hidden inside the VA's vast health care system.

The program, which is included in the VA's Women's Mental Health Center and is part of the VA's National Center for PTSD, leads and explores cutting edge treatment for female veterans. It aims to boost women onto a recovery path and refer them to local healthcare providers to ensure continuity of treatment.

Isolation on Home Front

A therapy quilt stitched by a female vet.

Trauma survivors typically think that others can't possibly understand what they have experienced. They fear that if they share their deepest thoughts they will be rejected.

Many veterans, especially those like Ann with children, survived in Iraq by blocking their feelings to get from day to day. Back in civilian life those defenses can cause them to suffer a sense of isolation from normal society. The recovery program addresses this by having patients relive their traumatic military experiences and discuss it with others trying to make the same transition. Vets who aren't ready to talk about their trauma concentrate on developing their interpersonal skills.

"These women are trying to reconcile the trauma they've seen in Iraq with our society which puts so much importance on where people get their hair cut," says Dr. Darrah Westrup, program director of the Women's Mental Health Center and the attending psychologist of the facility where Ann recovered. "They have been irrevocably changed and we have to help them believe that they still have a life here."

As part of her recovery, Ann worked on a quilt. She stitched the phrase "Every day in every way I'm getting better" around a rainbow.

She recently finished her treatment and is now one of almost 400 veterans from several wars to graduate from the Menlo Park program.

She returned home to an office job with the military until she receives her discharge papers and to care for her two young children.

"It was hard on them for me to come to the center," she says. "I reminded them that it would make mommy better because I was sleeping 16-18 hours a day. I couldn't function. I thought it would be easier now that I'm home, but I'm taking it one day at a time."

Pamela Burke is a freelance writer and producer living in Los Angeles.

For more information:

Iraq Coalition Casualties:
http://icasualties.org

The National Center for PTSD:
http://www.ncptsd.org