PTSD and Women Warriors: Causes, Controls and a Congressional Cure
This article is originally published in the Cardozo Journal of Law & Gender.
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Women comprise the fastest growing segment of the veteran population. Among the 1.8 million female veterans, more than 230,000 women have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. More than 750 women have been wounded in action; 137 have been killed. By the military’s own estimates, almost 20 percent of female veterans are returning home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (“PTSD”). Research suggests that women veterans returning from Iraq are more likely to report mental health concerns – including PTSD, depression and suicidal thoughts -- than their male counterparts. The prevalence of PTSD among women in the United States Armed Forces is exacerbated by the unique status that women hold in modern-day military. Despite the federal policy that bans women from units engaged in ground combat, women have served in record numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Surprisingly, the paper-only combat restrictions contribute to new cases of PTSD and preclude women from getting meaningful treatment for PTSD. Though new regulations passed in 2010 promised to liberalize the standards for veterans who seek treatment for PTSD, these treatment guidelines cannot reduce the new reported cases of PTSD. The military must achieve full gender integration, an essential element of alleviating some of the isolation that contributes to PTSD among women. A Congressionally-mandated report issued in March 2011 calls for the elimination of the “combat exclusion policies.” Congress’ embrace of sex-neutral military policies will serve several important policies. It would bring outmoded military polices that ban women in combat into alignment with the current military practices. It would also reflect recognition by the government that sex-role stereotyping in inconsistent with Constitutional guarantees. Finally, lifting the combat ban on women in the military would contribute in significant ways to efforts to minimize PTSD among women in the military. It would speed and improve screening practices for military women suffering from PTSD, help build better treatment models for women and, hopefully, reduce new cases. By liberating female military members from the assigned sex roles that contribute to their isolation, the government can integrate them fully into the military, and reduce their marginalization.