A growing number of women are serving in the US military. In 2008, 11% of Veterans from the Afghanistan and Iraq military operations were women. These numbers are expected to keep rising. In fact, women are the fastest growing group of Veterans.
Here are some stressful things that women might have gone through while deployed:
Combat Missions. Women are not always trained for combat. Yet they often take part in stressful and dangerous combat or combat-support missions. More women are receiving hostile fire, returning fire, and seeing themselves or others getting hurt. An "urban warfare" setting like the one in Iraq can be even more stressful. After coming home, many male and female Veterans continue to be bothered by the combat they went through.
Military Sexual Trauma (MST). A number of women (and men) who have served in the military experience MST. MST is any kind of unwanted sexual attention. MST includes insulting sexual comments, unwanted sexual advances, or even sexual assault. Being a victim of MST can leave women feeling alone, depressed, and anxious. To learn more about MST, go to our section on War.
Feeling Alone. In tough military missions, feeling that you are part of a group is important. In some theaters, though, personnel are deployed to new groups where they do not know the other service members. It can take time to build friendships and trusting relationships. Not feeling supported can be very hard.
Worrying About Family. It can be very hard for women with young children or elderly parents to be deployed for long periods of time. Service members are often given little notice. They may have to be away from home for a year or longer. Some women feel like they are "putting their lives on hold." They worry that they can't be watching over their loved ones. If there are troubles at home, both women and men in the field might start to feel overloaded. After returning home, some women find it is hard to return to the "mommy role." They may find that they have more conflicts with their children.
Because of these stressors, many women who return from deployment have trouble moving back into civilian life. While in time most will adjust, a small number will go on to have more serious problems like PTSD.
Among women Veterans of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, almost 20% have been diagnosed with PTSD. We also know the rates of PTSD in women Vietnam Veterans. An important study found that about 27% of women Vietnam Veterans suffered from PTSD sometime during their postwar lives. To compare, in men who served in Vietnam, the lifetime rate of PTSD was 31%.
Research shows that high levels of social support after the war were important for those women Veterans. Women who reported that they had close friends and family were less likely to have symptoms of PTSD. Having someone to talk to and someone who really cared helped women to adjust better to postwar life. It was also important for the returning women Veterans to feel that they could rely on others to assist them with tasks in times of need. Veterans who had this form of support suffered less from PTSD.
In response to the recent increase in women Veterans, the VA has put in place a number of health care and research programs just for women. This includes the Women Veterans Health Program and the Center for Women Veterans. Every VA in this country now has a Women Veterans Program Manager.
This fact sheet is based on a more detailed version, located in the "Professional" section of our website: Traumatic Stress in Female Veterans.