By Hugh Lessig 247-7821 10:21 p.m. EST, March 13, 2010
Tammy is an Army veteran dealing with post-traumatic stress, and she has a typically sad lament.
“Every little thing kind of sets me off,” she says, “and I start crying.”
She traces the depression, mood swings and lack of sleep to military sexual trauma and an experience she does not wish to discuss.
“I’m ready to move on with my life and have a place of my own where I can take care of my bills and, you know, do on my own,” she said. “But it’s hard.”
Esther, another Army veteran, has endured the death of her newborn son and a car crash that shattered her leg, among other difficulties. As she works toward self-reliance, her appointment book is filled with everything from swimming exercises to bereavement sessions.
“I used to try to be superwoman and get as many appointments done in the same day as I could,” she says. “But when it comes to certain issues, I say no. Better to rest.”
Tammy and Esther, who spoke on condition that only their first names be used, illustrate a growing concern in today’s military: the plight of women veterans.
Both have gone through experiences that affect their physical and emotional well-being, and both are homeless. Neither has given up.
The women stay at the Malachi House in Newport News, which offers housing and help for homeless veterans, and is targeting female vets in particular.
It is a labor of love for Mickey Collins and her husband, Waverly, who also have a church downtown. The Malachi House has only 14 beds, but it makes a special effort to bring in female veterans, who often come with children and face unique challenges when moving from the combat zone to the home front.
Tammy and Esther face these challenges even though neither saw combat during their Army careers. Females under fire — that’s another story.
Female veterans: Under fire
American women have served in the military since the Revolutionary War, but the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have caused their numbers to swell.
More than 212,000 female service members have been deployed during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, making up 11 percent of the U.S. force there, according to the Department of Defense.
More than 120 women have died, and more than 600 have been wounded in action.
Officially, female members cannot serve in roles where they are likely to engage in direct ground combat, but that doesn’t square with the fluid battle lines in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A convoy driver or a military police officer can face fire as easily as someone on a combat patrol. Sometimes those drivers and police officers are women.
In an October 2009 study, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America cited sources that show female veterans face rising rates of homelessness and divorce, and were considered more likely to report symptoms relating to post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
“Women are the fastest growing segment of the veteran population, and their enrollment in VA health care is expected to more than double in the next 15 years,” the study states.
Hampton VA and female veterans
At the Hampton VA Medical Center, the PTSD clinic runs between 5 percent and 8 percent women.
There was a time when gender breakdowns were not even worth reporting because the patients were overwhelmingly male.
Although much research remains to be done, professionals are noting both differences and similarities when it comes to how the two sexes react to combat stress.
“We know that when people have traumatic stress, it causes hormones to kick in,” said Marinell Miller, lead psychologist at the Hampton VA. “Women have a different hormonal makeup, so how does that impact?”
But some experiences transcend gender.
Miller recalled the first time a male soldier confessed that he had killed a woman during combat.
Later, a female veteran confessed the same thing, and it hit her just as hard as she whispered: “Dr. Miller, I killed a woman.”
“That was a big deal for all of them,” Miller said. “At the core, they’re very much alike in terms of how they respond.”
Women can face different challenges when re-entering civilian life from the combat zone, said Tonia Bagby, operations manager for the Hampton VA’s Community Based Outpatient Clinic in Virginia Beach.
Like a male veteran, a woman who returns home from combat might be emotionally disconnected for a time. Yet her family might remember her as a caring nurturer.
“It’s maybe a little more unique for the women because of societal expectations,” she said.
Military sexual trauma
Military sexual trauma, or MST, can be anything from sexual harassment to outright sexual assault. The Hampton VA has MST and PTSD programs, and part of the assessment process for incoming women veterans is determining what program they should enter.
The Iraq-Afghanistan veterans study states, “MST can lead to development of major health problems, such as depression, eating disorders, miscarriages and hypertension.”
Tammy, who traces her post-traumatic stress to MST, has a litany of health problems today.
Some relate to two physical injuries she suffered while on active duty in the Army from 1986 to 1994. She injured her lower back while trying to lift a 50-gallon container of soup, and later suffered knee injuries when containers fell on her.
She also suffers from depression and nightmares. She takes 17 pills a day for ailments ranging from high blood pressure to migraines.
“The list goes on and on,” she said.
Her medical condition made it nearly impossible for her to work. Before she became homeless, she stayed in a house owned by her sister, but then her sister bought another house and could not keep up two payments.
“That’s how I became homeless,” she said. “It was too much for her financially. I can’t expect them to pay.”
Esther has a different sort of mental and physical stress. She served in the Army from 1999 to 2003 at Fort Story, but went through a devastating two-year stretch that eventually landed her in the Malachi House.
Her husband left her in 2007, and the next year she had a difficult childbirth — her infant son did not survive. She worked through the process to have him buried in Arlington National Cemetery and dedicated him in 2009 on what would have been his first birthday.
Three weeks later, the brakes failed on her car, and the 50 mph impact broke multiple bones in her leg. Then came a long fight for disability benefits that proved frustrating. She has been left with hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid medical bills
“I just ended up in all of these bizarre situations,” she said.
Yet Esther remains upbeat. She is looking to get into a different housing program where she can reunite with her cat, which doubled as her personal therapy pet.
The Malachi House has literally helped her get back on her feet.
“I have a new sense of independence that I’ve never had before,” she said. “I’m actually riding the HRT. I just got cleared to get my driver’s license.”
Tammy doesn’t have any immediate job prospects — her medical condition makes that close to impossible for now — and she worries that any new employer might not tolerate her continued trips to the doctor.
“There are a lot of days where it takes everything I have to get out of bed,” she said. “If it weren’t for the Malachi House, I would have no place to be at. God’s been with me.”
Read Hugh Lessig’s military blog, Hampton Roads Recon, at hrmilitary.com/recon and dailypress.com/military.