Support is needed for women warriors living with PTSD

Women in the military are expanding their service in the military. Since the Department of Defense opened up all military roles to all service members in 2016, there have been many female “firsts” in the military. Women take on prominent leadership roles – Air Force General Lori J. Robinson became the first woman to lead a US military combat command, US Northern Command, in 2016. Women also enter more details on combat arms. Recently, the Navy graduated its first female Special Warfare Combat Crew member. Women are the fastest growing cohort in the veterans community, accounting for just over 16 percent of active duty today and about 10 percent of those separated.

As the population of female Veterans grows, we are learning more about the visible and invisible injuries these women experience in the course of their service, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a common ailment for many veterans after military service. Symptoms may include disturbing thoughts, feelings, or dreams related to the events; mental or physical distress; Difficulty sleeping; and changes in the way a person thinks and feels.

A special report from the Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) from June 2021 examines the impact of PTSD on the female veterans it serves. The report delves into the research findings of the Annual Survey of Warriors (AWS). In Women Warriors: Understanding the Risk of PTSD in a Rapidly Growing Population, WWP identifies three most common risk factors for PTSD in female warriors: combat experience, military sexual trauma (MSD), and accompanying mental health problems.

A closer look at PTSD and female veterans

Female AWS 2020 veterans deploy an average of three times. Of these, 84% were deployed in a combat zone. We have learned that these forward-deployed female warriors are more likely to suffer from moderate to severe PTSD than other female service members who have not been deployed to a combat zone.

· Three in four women (78 percent) reported an STD. The special report shows that female warriors who have survived an STD are almost three times more likely to have moderate to severe symptoms of PTSD than female warriors who have not suffered an STD.

· From the survey, we also know that 91 percent of wounded female warriors have more than one mental health problem. These warrior women are nearly five times more likely to experience moderate to severe PTSD symptoms than those who only face one mental health issue.

The influx of women into the military means more female veterans need adequate support and access to treatment to promote mental health care. Already, more than 80 percent of female warriors report suffering from PTSD in the most recent survey. Like other types of trauma, PTSD can negatively affect a person’s mental and physical health. Yet the analysis concluded that nearly half of female warriors with PTSD experience difficulty accessing mental health care.

We must do more to support wounded warrior women during and after service in our country.

WWP developed the Women Warriors Initiative to understand, empower and advocate for the women warriors who have served our nation. We will continue to work with other organizations and Congress to share our research insights and recommend practical policy solutions to improve care for women warriors.

An essential aspect of WWP’s programs and services is to engage women warriors in engagement with others. For example, female-focused connection events take female warriors to the next level in their recovery. We offer women-only peer support groups – led by female veterans – that help strengthen the bonds many report missing after leaving the service. WWP also provides clinical care referrals through our Warrior Care Network®, a program that provides lifesaving mental health care to veterans dealing with PTSD, traumatic brain injury and combat stress. Since the inception of the Warrior Care Network, nearly 500 women have received intensive outpatient treatment, a third of whom have been treated through STD-specific cohorts.

Despite enormous challenges, female warriors remain resilient and seek support, resources, and connections with other female veterans. Our responsibility as a nation is to work together to provide them with the care that will meet their unique needs now and in the future.

Jennifer Silva is the Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) Chief Program Officer. She graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point and served in the military as a logistics officer. Prior to joining WWP, Jennifer worked in finance, owned her own business, and was a high school teacher.

Editor’s Note: This is an editorial and as such the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond or would like to submit your own editorial, please contact Military Times Senior Editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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