NYT: “The Women’s War”

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Sara Corbett reports in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine on the “double whammy” many women serving in Iraq experience: sexual assault and the violence of war:

No matter how you look at it, Iraq is a chaotic war in which an unprecedented number of women have been exposed to high levels of stress. So far, more than 160,000 female soldiers have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, as compared with the 7,500 who served in Vietnam and the 41,000 who were dispatched to the gulf war in the early ’90s. Today one of every 10 U.S. soldiers in Iraq is female….

There have been few large-scale studies done on the particular psychiatric effects of combat on female soldiers in the United States, mostly because the sample size has heretofore been small. More than one-quarter of female veterans of Vietnam developed PTSD at some point in their lives, according to the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Survey conducted in the mid-’80s, which included 432 women, most of whom were nurses. (The PTSD rate for women was 4 percent below that of the men.) Two years after deployment to the gulf war, where combat exposure was relatively low, Army data showed that 16 percent of a sample of female soldiers studied met diagnostic criteria for PTSD, as opposed to 8 percent of their male counterparts. The data reflect a larger finding, supported by other research, that women are more likely to be given diagnoses of PTSD, in some cases at twice the rate of men.

Experts are hard pressed to account for the disparity. Is it that women have stronger reactions to trauma? Do they do a better job of describing their symptoms and are therefore given diagnoses more often? Or do men and women tend to experience different types of trauma? Friedman points out that some traumatic experiences have been shown to be more psychologically ”toxic” than others. Rape, in particular, is thought to be the most likely to lead to PTSD in women (and in men, in the rarer times it occurs). Participation in combat, though, he says, is not far behind.

Much of what we know about trauma comes primarily from research on two distinct populations – civilian women who have been raped and male combat veterans. But taking into account the large number of women serving in dangerous conditions in Iraq and reports suggesting that women in the military bear a higher risk than civilian women of having been sexually assaulted either before or during their service, it’s conceivable that this war may well generate an unfortunate new group to study – women who have experienced sexual assault and combat, many of them before they turn 25.

A 2003 report financed by the Department of Defense revealed that nearly one-third of a nationwide sample of female veterans seeking health care through the V.A. said they experienced rape or attempted rape during their service. Of that group, 37 percent said they were raped multiple times, and 14 percent reported they were gang-raped. Perhaps even more tellingly, a small study financed by the V.A. following the gulf war suggests that rates of both sexual harassment and assault rise during wartime. The researchers who carried out this study also looked at the prevalence of PTSD symptoms – including flashbacks, nightmares, emotional numbing and round-the-clock anxiety – and found that women who endured sexual assault were more likely to develop PTSD than those who were exposed to combat.

Read more  in  “The Women’s War.”

-Caitlin Borgmann

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