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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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:

The National Center for PTSD:


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