BBC News

Female veterans tormented by combat and sexual trauma

By Laura Trevelyan
BBC News, New York

media captionJune Moss struggled with suicidal tendencies and depression after returning home from her tour in Iraq

Nearly one in six members of the US military on active duty is a woman. Coming to terms with what they experience, especially when they come home, can take a terrible toll.

Women in the US military have come a long way since a WWII recruiting poster urged them to Free a Marine to Fight by joining up in support roles.

Today 14.5% of active duty members of the US military are women.

And even though they're not strictly in combat roles, women are experiencing warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan just like the men do.

Women, too, are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder as a result of the horrors they've seen. Coping with that, and with being a mother, poses problems of its own.

Take June Moss, a mother of two who was a staff sergeant in the US army shortly after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Mental illness

Ms Moss left her children, Jacob and Briona, with relatives while she served in Iraq as a mechanic and a driver.

"I experienced fear on a daily basis," says Ms Moss, who drove a sergeant major into Baghdad for meetings each day in the turbulent period after the invasion.

"There were explosions all the time, shootings overhead," she says. "We were travelling with tanks while they cleared the road of bombs.

"Every time we pulled over, we had to guard the perimeter. Snipers were there trying to blow our heads off.

"The sniper doesn't say, 'that's a man, that's a woman.' How's that 'not combat'?"

Jo Rusin, who was the US Army's most senior female commander in the 1990 Gulf War, observes that women have been involved with the US military going back to the revolutionary war of 1776.

Then, women were nurses. Now, she says: "They're flying planes and helicopters, and they're on every ship except submarines.

"A woman can't be a rifleman or a tanker - but pretty much everything else.

"And in Afghanistan and Iraq, the enemy determines where combat is going to be - you can drive a truck and be in combat."

Battle on home front

You can experience combat inside an army base too.

Yolanda Jones, a logistics specialist in the US army reserve, found her base in Taji, Iraq, was repeatedly hit by mortars and grenades.

media captionMeghan Wood describes how she grew tired of feeling ''like a show dog'' and the lingering effects of her military service

"We couldn't walk anywhere without thinking we might be hit by IEDs [improvised explosive devices]," says Ms Jones, a single mother who has written a book about her war experiences called Scarred But Not Broken.

"Day in, day out, I was escaping death."

Ms Moss, Ms Jones and thousands of other women have returned from war zones to resume their roles as mothers, while suffering from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).

Research with US veterans (male and female) from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan suggests that 19-42% have mental health conditions.

For many women, the contrast between the battlefield and the home front is especially stark. They must reconcile their military role with a mothering one.

Dr Natara Garovoy, head psychiatrist at a pioneering mental health clinic for women veterans in Palo Alto, California, says motherhood be a source of more stress in what's already a stressful situation.

"As primary caregivers, women battle to prioritise themselves," she says.

The growth in the numbers of women serving in the US military has been enormous over the past 10 years. There are now 1.8 million women veterans.

Seeing dead people

The percentage growth has outpaced that of the male veteran population, and the number of female veterans continues to increase.

The healthcare system run by the US Department of Veterans Affairs has had to respond as a result.

Dr Garavoy encourages women veterans to seek help if they're experiencing flashbacks and not sleeping.

"We understand PTSD as an issue of recovery," she says.

"Someone can recover by processing what happened, and overcoming the often common belief that what happened was their fault.

"By sitting down with a patient, we can take a look at what happened."

Dr Garovoy finds that the anxiety which patients with PTSD have often generalises itself and appears in apparently normal situations.

She had one patient who had worked in a morgue during her service. "She had seen lots of dead bodies," says Dr Garovoy.

"Whenever she went running, she went past faces of people and they would remind her of the faces of the fallen angels she had seen in the morgue."

Ms Moss has learned to avoid war movies, which trigger memories of what she saw in Iraq.

"I listen to gospel music, use my words - understanding your triggers and understanding you is part of the recovery," she says.

Rape by rank

Women serving in the armed forces also face the risk of military sexual trauma, or MST, which can lead to PTSD. MST is harassment or sexual assault, often by colleagues.

A study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2010 found that 15% of women veterans had reported experiencing MST.

"There's the enemy within, not only the enemy without," says Dr Samina Iqbal, of the VA Women's Health Care facility in Palo Alto.

MST - which has affected men in the armed forces as well - is also known as Rape by Rank.

"Sexual assault is horrific - what makes it even more horrific in the military is if it's at the hands of your fellow colleagues," says Dr Garovoy.

"The betrayal of trust - particularly if this is your superior. In the military, your work is your home - where do you go, you can't get away from this person."

image captionJune Moss left her son and daughter (pictured) to fight in Iraq

Ms Jones experienced repeated sexual harassment.

Her job was to make sure vehicles and radios were ready for the troops to use.

A soldier from another unit would rub up against her, squeezing past her and pressing himself against her at every opportunity he got.

"It was like I was in a meat market," she says.

"I shaved my head because I didn't want the attention but that only gave me more attention.

"I wanted my fellow soldiers to see me as having their back, not as a woman. It was sickening."

Ms Jones and her female colleagues would go to the showers in pairs, fearful of being sexually assaulted by male colleagues if they ventured out alone.

As women serve in more prominent roles in the US military, they are experiencing the same combat trauma as men.

Yet for retired army commander Jo Rusin, the overall experience of women soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan is positive.

"The current wars are disproving so many of the myths that women can't handle it," says Ms Rusin.

"All of those preconceptions that women will fall apart are being disproved. Women will excel, and the culture of the military will undergo a shift."

For Yolanda Jones, that shift can't come too soon.

"I feel like the US military has a long way to go," she says.

"I don't feel like our voices are being heard. We have made a huge contribution and we're still not acknowledged."