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Women Veterans Still Face Battle

Identity issues and PTSD related to military sexual trauma can complicate women veterans’ reintegration into civilian life.


According to the Council on Foreign Relations, just two percent of enlisted military forces and eight percent of the officer corps were women when the draft ended in 1973. The Council’s 2018 report on the demographics of the US military states that those numbers have increased significantly, to 16 percent of enlisted forces and 18 percent of officer corps. That means women’s representation in the veteran population also has increased. In fact, the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that the population of women veterans will increase at an average rate of about 18,000 women each year for the next 10 years.


Despite their growing numbers, the challenges women face on active duty and as veterans have not received a lot of attention. Last November, the Chez Center for Wounded Veterans in Higher Education cast a spotlight on military women during the day-long symposium “Women Veterans: Health, Community, & Legacy.” Co-sponsored with Illinois Joining Forces, which promotes the growth and wellness of service members, veterans, and their families throughout the state, the event addressed Veterans Administration (VA) health care services for women veterans and ways to build community among women who have served, among other issues.


Dr. Jeni Hunniecutt, visiting research specialist at the Center who co-coordinated the event, knows firsthand the difficulties of transitioning from military to civilian environments. After six years of service in the Army National Guard, she struggled to find meaning in her service and didn’t identify herself as a veteran for more than a year after leaving the Guard. Curious about whether her experiences were shared by other veterans, she began to investigate veteran identity as a doctoral student at the University of Denver. She found that the loss of the military community and its structure hit all veterans hard, but that being female added a layer of complexity.


“Being successful within the male-dominated military environment requires constant strategic management of the performance of femininity, or ‘militarizing’ your femininity” she said. “In the civilian world, this can be off-putting for women who haven’t been conditioned to manage femininity in those ways.” This can make it difficult for female veterans to form relationships with non-military coworkers, fellow students, and so on, leaving them feeling isolated and unwelcome. As part of its effort to serve the female veteran population, the Chez Center has initiated a Women Connections Group. Led by Ingrid Wheeler, assistant director of behavioral health services, the group provides a safe space for women veterans to bond with each other and to build trust with center staff.


Feelings of isolation and mistrust and difficulty in adjusting to post-service life can be heightened if women have experienced Military Sexual Trauma (MST), which can range from unwanted sexual comments to direct sexual assault. One in three women in the service will experience MST, according to statistics quoted by Dr. Hunniecutt, and research shows that MST is a greater predictor of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than combat experiences.


Dr. Robyn Gobin, assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health and licensed clinical psychologist, says PTSD is the number one condition for which women veterans seek treatment at VA healthcare facilities, followed by major depressive disorder. In remarks she made at the women veterans event in November, she cited a news article that asserts women’s service-connected disability claims to the VA were as much as 30 percent less likely to be approved when the disability was related to MST.


“Not getting benefits creates problems with how well they can take care of themselves,” she said. “Even though the overall number of homeless veterans is declining, for example, the number of homeless women veterans is increasing.” A 2018 report on National Public Radio stated that the suicide rate for female veterans has increased 85 percent in recent years.


Clearly, Dr. Gobin said, it is critical to increase mental health screening for women veterans as well as their awareness of available benefits and services. The VA needs to modify its procedures for approving claims for issues related to MST. There also is a need for increased funding for research that addresses the unique needs of women veterans, she said.


“For example, we know that PTSD treatment is effective only about 50 percent of the time, and that is unacceptable,” she said. “How do we improve treatments, particularly for women veterans who have experienced Military Sexual Trauma?”


In her own research based on work with female veterans seeking VA healthcare, Dr. Gobin has found that, compared to peer support, building skill in emotion regulation and distress tolerance prior to treatment for PTSD results in lower rates of drop out during treatment among MST survivors. “These results suggest that equipping MST survivors with fundamental skills for managing their emotions can support PTSD recovery by helping them stay engaged with treatment,” said Dr. Gobin.

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