Women service members are expanding their service in the military. Since the Defense Department opened all military roles to all service members in 2016, there have been many female “firsts” across military forces. Women are taking on prominent command leadership roles – Air Force Gen. Lori J. Robinson became the first woman to lead a U.S. military combatant command, U.S. Northern Command, in 2016. Women are also stepping into more combat arms details. Recently, the Navy graduated its first female Special Warfare Combatant-Craft Crewman. Women are the fastest growing cohort in the veteran community, representing just over 16 percent of today’s active-duty and about 10 percent of those separated.
As the population of women veterans grows, we learn more about the visible and invisible wounds these women experience from their time in service, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a prevalent condition for many veterans after military service. Symptoms can include disturbing thoughts, feelings, or dreams related to the events; mental or physical distress; difficulty sleeping; and changes in how a person thinks and feels.
A June 2021 Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) special report looks at the impact of PTSD among the women veterans it serves. The report dives deeper into research findings from the Annual Warrior Survey (AWS). In Women Warriors: Understanding PTSD Risk in a Rapidly Growing Population, WWP identifies three PTSD risk factors most prevalent among women warriors: combat experience, military sexual trauma (MST), and co-occurring mental health conditions.
A deeper look into PTSD and women veterans
· Women veterans in the 2020 AWS report deploying an average of three times. Of those, 84 percent deployed to a combat zone. We learned that these forward-deployed women warriors are more likely to experience moderate to severe PTSD than other service women who did not deploy to a combat zone.
· Three out of four (78 percent) women reported MST. The special report shows that women warriors who were MST survivors are nearly three times as likely to experience moderate to severe symptoms of PTSD compared to women warriors who did not experience MST.
· From the survey, we also know 91 percent of wounded women warriors have more than one mental health condition. These women warriors are nearly five times as likely to experience moderate to severe PTSD symptoms than those only coping with one mental health condition.
The influx of women in the military means that more women veterans need adequate support and access to treatment to promote mental health care. Already, more than 80 percent of women warriors report experiencing PTSD in the most recent survey. Like other types of traumas, PTSD can negatively affect a person’s mental and physical health. Still, the analysis concluded that nearly half of women warriors with PTSD experience challenges accessing mental health care.
We must do more to support wounded women warriors during and after their service to our country.
WWP developed the Women Warriors Initiative to understand, empower, and advocate for women warriors who have served our nation. We will continue to work with other organizations and Congress to share insights from our research and recommend practical policy solutions to improve care for women warriors.
An essential aspect of WWP programs and services is to get women warriors engaged with others. For example, female-focused connection events empower women warriors to take the next step in their recovery. We offer women-only peer support groups — led by women veterans — that help foster bonds many report are missing after leaving service. WWP also provides clinical care referrals through our Warrior Care Network®, a program that provides lifesaving mental health care for veterans managing PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and combat stress. Since the inception of Warrior Care Network, nearly 500 women have benefited from intensive outpatient treatment, with one-third treated through MST-specific cohorts.
Despite facing tremendous challenges, women 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 the care that will meet their unique needs now and in the future.
Jennifer Silva serves as chief program officer of Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP). She is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and served in the Army as a logistics officer. Before coming to WWP, Jennifer worked in the financial field, owned her own business, and was a secondary school educator.
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times senior managing editor Howard Altman, email@example.com.