After Tour, Female Vets Face Unique Challenges Women returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan have to readjust to civilian life, just as men do. But the issues they face are different. Host Debbie Elliott talks with Dr. Deborah Yaeger, director of Women's Psychiatry at the VA Greater Los Angeles Health Care System.
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After Tour, Female Vets Face Unique Challenges

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After Tour, Female Vets Face Unique Challenges

After Tour, Female Vets Face Unique Challenges

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There are more than 1.7 million female veterans in the United States and women are among the fastest-growing segment of new users of the Veterans Administration. Like men, women returning from war zones can have problems readjusting to civilian life.

Dr. Deborah Yaeger directs women psychiatry at the VA Greater Los Angeles Health Care System. I asked her how many of the patients there are veterans of the Iraq War.

Dr. DEBORAH YAEGER (Director, Women Psychiatry, VA Greater Los Angeles Health Care System): The number of women who have served in Iraq - numbers of several dozen at this point in time - they are small but definitely a growing population.

ELLIOTT: You know, we just heard from one of our reporters that women who have been serving in Iraq are much closer to combat than women have been in previous wars. What kinds of new issues does that bring up for them?

Dr. YAEGER: Well, I think that's very true. First of all, women in this military have become totally integrated and are serving side-by-side with men in units. Often times, though, women are really a small minority of those who were in those units. And it poses a lot of issues for them, safety issues are one in which women can be concerned about, going to the bathroom, for example, in the middle of the night. It's very dark in - on these bases in Iraq. And they're so much fearful about going to the bathroom both because of Iraqi potentially ambush, but also for whoever else on their own base might be around. So that's one small arena in which their service with men in a fully integrated military is different.

ELLIOTT: You talk about them being afraid right on their own base, of the people who might be there with them. What are they afraid of?

Dr. YAEGER: They are afraid of being traumatized sexually, potentially by other soldiers. This is - not an insignificant portion of the women that we've seen have experienced sexual trauma, both before the Iraq conflict, and we're seeing a significant numbers of sexual trauma happening in Iraq. So it is a problem for these women coming back that they have often times both combat and sexual trauma to deal with.

ELLIOTT: When you say sexual trauma, do you mean sexual harassment? Do you mean rape? Is this by people who are in their own units?

Dr. YAEGER: It combines all of those. It can be sexual harassment of the nature where catcalls or people propositioning them really inappropriately, and it can definitely be rape. It extends the gamut of all of that.

ELLIOTT: Are there any numbers on that? Are there any figures that can help us understand what percentage of women veterans have gone through something like that?

Dr. YAEGER: Well, the number between 23 and 33 percent has been reported in many different studies in terms of women veteran saying that they've had sexual trauma in the military.

ELLIOTT: Dr. Yaeger, you know, fathers and husbands have always gone off to war and that has always brought up issues for the family. But now that mothers and wives are going to war and closer and closer to combat zones, can you describe the problems that might arise in a family when it is the wife and/or mother who's going off to war and then tries to come back and resume her role in the household?

Dr. YAEGER: Yeah. It's a very interesting and difficult question. I'll tell you about one of our patients, who is the mother of a young elementary school-aged child. She actually was deployed twice to Iraq. The first time her child was only about 9 months old. And at that point, she thought her mother would take care of the baby. The grandmother had been very involved in its care to begin with. So the veteran who was deployed thought that that would go quite well.

She came back and within a couple of years had to be re-deployed to Iraq again. This time, however, the now 3-year-old had a great deal of difficulty with his mother's absence. And every time a plane came by, he'd look up in the sky and say, oh, mommy's coming home, mommy's coming home, and he gets very excited. And then when his mother didn't show up within a few hours, he would get very sad and anxious.

And she came back last year and has found, you know, a marked changed in him and that he's quite anxious. He has a lot of difficulty separating when she takes him to school. And, in fact, the school has noticed such a change in him that they've actually, sort of, stepped in with some special services to try and aid with his transitioning into the classroom.

But from another perspective, it's been very difficult for the mother to take charge again as the main caretaker. She finds that her authority seems to be diluted. So it's been very difficult for her to, kind of, retake on the role that she had prior to leaving. And it's made also more difficult because she had looked to the military as her career.

But after her second deployment, she realized that the effects on her child were such that she really had to get out. So it's been an ambivalent situation for her because she felt very good about what she did. She was very respected and is now kind of grappling with what she's going to be doing with herself here.

ELLIOT: Dr. Deborah Yaeger is director of the Women's Psychiatry Program at the VA Greater Los Angeles Health Care System. Thank you for talking with us.

Dr. YAEGER: Thank you.

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