The Challenges Female Vets Face When Coming Home

As more troops return home, the transition can be difficult, especially for women who served. Services designed to help veterans are not always equipped to deal with the needs of the nearly 2 million female vets. Guest host Viviana Hurtado discusses their unique challenges with women involved in the film, SERVICE: When Women Come Marching Home.

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VIVIANA HURTADO, HOST:

I'm Viviana Hurtado and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we discuss one author's journey to Afghanistan to discover how a generation of children are coping with their country's new circumstances.

But first, it's time for our Behind Closed Doors conversation. That's the part of the program when we talk about topics that are often kept private.

Today we're focusing on the issues facing the almost two million American women veterans. As many American troops return from Iraq and Afghanistan, the transition to life at home can be especially difficult for them. That's because systems designed to help veterans aren't always equipped to deal with women's needs.

The documentary, "Service: When Women Come Marching Home," highlights some of the challenges these veterans and those who served before them face. Here's a clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SERVICE: WHEN WOMEN COME MARCHING HOME")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I'll go to my - do my grocery shopping at, you know, 2:00 in the morning because there's nobody there.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Every backfiring car puts you back there.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Everybody else knew what was wrong with me or knew that something was wrong with me. I'm the only one that didn't think so.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: If someone asked me how my military service was, I'd say it was great.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: I refused to admit that maybe I was lost.

HURTADO: Here to tell us more about service - "When Women Come Marching Home" - is Professor Marcia Rock. She's a producer of the film and the director of the news and documentary department at NYU's Journalism Institute. And BriGette McCoy. She's a veteran and founder of the group Women Veterans Social Justice. Also with us is Alicia Thompson. They are two of the veterans featured in the documentary.

Welcome to the program, ladies, and thank you for your service.

BRIGETTE MCCOY: Thank you for having us.

ALICIA THOMPSON: Thank you for having us.

MARCIA ROCK: It's good to be here.

HURTADO: I just want to point out that there may be some conversation about sexual trauma that might not be suitable for younger listeners.

Marcia, let's start with you. In making this documentary, you spoke with several women veterans. What was the range of issues they faced?

ROCK: We started thinking about the physical injuries that women face because in a frontless war like the Iraq-Afghanistan wars, women were on the frontline, in convoys and as military police. So that's where we started and we started with service dogs helping with physical disabilities, but it didn't take very long to realize that the hidden disabilities that women brought home were really devastating and that would be post-traumatic stress and military sexual trauma.

HURTADO: Marcia, why are these issues particularly difficult for women?

ROCK: Reporting these traumas is a very difficult situation, and this is huge issue that is of great concern in Washington, D.C. and in the military. Women are afraid to report because it's a male-dominated culture and usually instead of being heard and the problems dealt with, they're shunted to the side. The women are pushed along. They're diagnosed as having borderline personality disorder in order to get them out, and most women don't report because of the repercussions.

And even if you do report, usually you get pushed out in one way, so your career is pretty much over. The DOD thinks that in 2011, 19,000 people did not report military sexual trauma, and that's from harassment to rape. Only 3,000 did.

HURTADO: I wanted to go to Alicia. If you can talk to us a little bit about what happened to you in Afghanistan and how it's affected you.

THOMPSON: Well, it's a little difficult to talk about still. About six years ago I had a couple of friends killed by an improvised explosive device. It also wounded one of the female veterans that was with me. She's also in the film. I am fortunate enough to have had fantastic non-commissioned officers and officers and where I didn't have the problem or fear of military sexual trauma, so that's not something that I'm diverse on.

HURTADO: You also talked, Alicia, that you were all very close, and so the lines of communications were open.

THOMPSON: Absolutely. My platoon was very, very close and we stuck by each other no matter what.

HURTADO: Can you talk to us, Alicia - when you started to feel that - wait, I might have something called PTSD. Something's just not right. And I guess this must have happened in interactions with your family members and your neighbors and coworkers.

THOMPSON: Well, my situation is a little bit different since when I was deployed, I was actually in Germany and I deployed from Germany, so when I returned home, quote-unquote, I didn't return back to the States. I didn't return to my family. I returned to Germany, where I had really nobody other than my other platoon-mates, so they kind of all understood.

Once I got back to the States and actually got out of the military, that's when it kind of hit me that, you know, not everybody's going to understand and not everybody's going to be as supportive.

It took a lot. It took quite a few years for me to actually go in to see somebody.

HURTADO: I want to play another clip from the documentary. In this clip, BriGette, you talk about some of the expectations you had when you returned from service. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SERVICE: WHEN WOMEN COME MARCHING HOME")

MCCOY: I really thought that when I got out, I was going to be able to get a job, be able to support my family, you know, have these really great opportunities. But when I got back, I really struggled emotionally. I went through a severe depression. I attempted suicide. I went through many things that - you know, homelessness. I mean, the list goes on and on and on.

HURTADO: BriGette, talk to us a little bit more about your transition when you came home.

MCCOY: What I realize about transitioning now, looking back, is no one prepares you for it. Basically you are put on a plane, you're sent to a station. You give up all of your military gear and check out, and with the military sexual trauma and me being escorted out of the military very quickly because of reporting it, I didn't have a chance to transition. I didn't have a chance to prepare to get out. I didn't have a chance to look for jobs or even let my family know that I was going to get out.

So I basically started from zero and having a small child who had medical conditions and having my own medical conditions that the military knew about and that I was going to them and saying I needed help with - I had injured my back on a fall during patrol. You know, there were just all of these things that - I'm starting at zero, but really I'm at a deficit and there really wasn't anyone to turn to and say, hey, I'm having problems transitioning or getting out of the service or what should I do.

And then, when I would go on interviews, it was very, very difficult to have a conversation about my military service. So then I began to not talk about that, not include it on my resume or not include the depth of the experience that I had, because whenever someone would see that information, they would get excited and they'd want to talk about, you know, my time in the service and how was it. And there wasn't very much that I could say because it was still very raw to me.

That put me in a lot of very difficult situations.

HURTADO: BriGette, you came back and, like you said, you felt that you weren't even at zero, at a deficit. Can you tell us - is this one of the reasons why you started the group Women Veterans Social Justice?

MCCOY: Actually, it was. It actually took almost a decade - more than a decade - to really understand that there were things going on with me and that maybe these things were not so unique to myself.

So about 2005 or '06, I started really - you know, looking at, you know, my situation and wanting to maybe connect with other veteran women to find employment. That was really where it started from.

After going through a process of no one wanting to talk to me about connecting and networking, I just thought it was very odd. Don't we want to work? Don't we want to get involved in working and helping each other? But again, it was just a very closed off - no one wanted to really talk or connect at that level and even say that they were a veteran woman.

When I started online, I had met with another veteran and I started doing some research and at the same time I was going through some exacerbations of some medical conditions myself and I ended up at the Atlanta V.A. You know, interestingly, they all kind of happened at the same time. And that's when I found out about military sexual trauma. That's when I found out about - what I had wasn't just a bump in the road that just kept happening, but that it was depression, severe depression.

And that was when I said, hmm, if I didn't know these things were - resources were available, these situations were available, maybe no one else did, again, and maybe the way I was trying to do it was the problem, so maybe I'll go online and try it. And Facebook, for my generation, at that point we really hadn't grasped utilizing Facebook at all. It was just more of, you know, the other generation's way to talk about their parties and their events, and I saw it as a way to reach out and change social services, basically, by, you know, utilizing it to get information out to people on the ground where they are in and in the community.

And so I basically started Veterans Social Justice. It started off as Veterans Social Justice because I was very concerned that it would be a problem to have it as a women organization, but now I'm not so concerned.

HURTADO: Marcia, can you tell us - BriGette is a veteran of the first Gulf War. How is her experience typical or not of a female veteran like Alicia and what they face now?

ROCK: Well, I think the big difference is that there were more women on the frontline in a frontless war in Iraq and Afghanistan than in the Gulf War. The other thing is that we often forget the traumas affecting the pre-9/11 women veterans and they don't get the services that the post-9/11 women veterans get in many instances. So it's a problem that people are just focusing on post-9/11 when many, many women served before that.

HURTADO: Alicia, since you've come back from Afghanistan, you told us that you've struggled with PTSD. Can you tell us how it's changed your life?

THOMPSON: Drastically. And I don't think it's just the PTSD. It's my military experience in general. I wouldn't have changed that five years of my life, ever. Though I lost a few great friends, I made a whole family that I could never let go of. However, the changes in my attitude towards things, such as public places and crowds and loud noises is drastically different. Fourth of July is not fun, though...

HURTADO: Because of the fireworks and the booms?

THOMPSON: Right. It's supposed to be a celebrated holiday for military members and I don't find it enjoyable, actually. It's those kind of things that people take for granted. You know, going to concerts and going to the supermarket or going out in public when - a public market or a festival. You know, if I don't have a group of people that I'm very close to and very trusting, I have high anxiety and high stress levels at those kind of times. And I never used to do that. I was very much a social butterfly and did just about everything.

HURTADO: Some of the women, Alicia, in the documentary, have a service dog. Are you thinking about getting one or is there anything else you can - that you're doing to stay healthier?

THOMPSON: It is actually kind of in the works, not just for my PTSD. I was medically retired from the military because I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, so it's kind of a dual situation with a service dog for me, so it's taking a little bit of time to actually get that up and going.

HURTADO: BriGette, I understand - you spoke a little bit about it and I know it's hard to talk about - the sexual harassment during your service. Can you tell us, I guess, what advice you have for returning female veterans who have experienced that?

MCCOY: The difficulty with getting - leaving the service and having had a sexual trauma or sexual harassment is - you're gone. You're not in the service, so there's nothing you can correct, you know, systematically in the service. Coming out, if there's been any sexual harassment, sexual trauma, I would say seek, you know, mental health counseling. That would be my first step.

I think that if that does not work for the young woman or the service member leaving out of the service, I would go into therapeutic arts. I personally am a big advocate of utilizing the therapeutic arts as a modality for healing.

HURTADO: Marcia, what do you think?

ROCK: It was very interesting for me to work with the ladies because, in a sense, it was art therapy to participate in the documentary. And all of the women have grown tremendously since we started working together, so that was really a wonderful experience for me.

HURTADO: Alicia, how about you? What advice do you have for females returning who may or may not have PTSD or other trauma?

THOMPSON: My advice? Well, you have to be ready to go to therapy. You have to be ready for some kind of therapy before you go into it. You can't force yourself to do something, because it's not going to be effective. You'll reach to that point where you're like this isn't who I want to be. This isn't where I want to be. I need to do something. It's an interesting concept to give someone advice when I didn't take my own advice for a long time.

HURTADO: Marcia, you've shown this film to veterans and to non-veterans. Can you tell us how different the responses are to both groups?

ROCK: Well, when we show it to veterans, it's an affirmation. The women usually go, yes, that's me, I'm not the only one. And I did contribute as a great soldier. You know, yes, I did experience that. But women can be really powerful members of the military.

For civilians, they mainly focus on the military sexual trauma because that's really new information for them. In our society, I think women's issues have really grown. I think in the military they still say, oh, well, you were wearing provocative clothing or you shouldn't have had a drink. You know, basically it was your fault. You know, the man is always right. If you're sexually provoked, then you must have been doing something wrong.

And so the military really has to catch up with that.

HURTADO: Marcia Rock is one of the co-producers of the documentary, "Service: When Women Come Marching Home." She joins us from Martha's Vineyard. Alicia Thompson is one of the vets featured in the documentary. She joined us from WXXI in Rochester, New York. And BriGette McCoy was also featured in the documentary. She's also the founder of the group Women Veterans Social Justice. She joined us from WCLK in Atlanta, Georgia.

Thank you all.

MCCOY: Thank you.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

ROCK: Thanks.

HURTADO: A new school year is just starting. Parents are busy with back to school shopping for supplies and clothes, but for some families, this time means more than getting the right markers, notebooks and folders. We'll talk with the parents of special needs children about how they prepare for the beginning of the year. That's next time on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Viviana Hurtado.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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