DAVID GREENE, Host:
We should warn you that some people will find this four-minute report disturbing.
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JEN HOWARD: Here at the Philadelphia Veteran's Affairs Hospital, Louise Hawthorne is between appointments.
LOUISE HAWTHORNE: Hi. Did Ms. O'Donnell call me yet?
HOWARD: Hawthorne is a disabled veteran from the First Gulf War, over a decade ago. She was a Chemical Operations Specialist, dealing regularly with radioactive material and biological weapons. She suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and a number of health complications she feels are related to her exposure.
HAWTHORNE: I've had several miscarriages. I've had a couple of strokes. I was also gang raped in the military four separate times, none of which have been prosecuted.
HOWARD: Hawthorne alleges she tried to report the rapes to superiors but was rebuffed. Today she's part of a growing class action lawsuit filed in Virginia Federal court on behalf or active duty and veteran victims of sexual trauma. But at the time, Hawthorne says, she felt helpless. She tried to just get over it and do her job.
HAWTHORNE: We have basically, like, trained ourselves to act like that didn't hurt, roll with the punches. And so when we come back and we have, like, PTSD, flash backs, things like that, we deny it more than men do because we're saying oh, well I just - well, she's just emotional.
HOWARD: So, once she was back, Hawthorne tried to keep her symptoms at bay. She finally had a baby with her husband, but then their marriage fell apart. And Hawthorne got sicker.
HAWTHORNE: When I did start coming back and forth to the VA hospital, I would often blow off appointments because I had to take care of my daughter.
HOWARD: This Philadelphia VA Hospital doesn't have childcare. And missing appointments, coupled with self-medication, was a recipe for disaster.
HAWTHORNE: Because I remember one instance when I had laid down, and she couldn't have been no older than five, and I'd taken my medicine, and I was out cold. And I woke up to these little baby hands trying to CPR.
HOWARD: It's the kind of thing Marsha Four has seen before. She's the executive director of the Philadelphia Veterans Multi-Service and Education Center.
MARSHA FOUR: When you're suffering with that kind of pain, it bleeds over, it becomes part of everything that you do.
HOWARD: Four speaks from experience, she's a Vietnam veteran. She says transitioning back to caretaker isn't always easy.
FOUR: You know, if there's issues or problems, we'll deal with them later. We have to get to the ballgame, or we have to get to the grocery store, or so many other things take precedence over our own health.
HOWARD: Four says the VA is working hard to provide better services for women. And things have improved. There's better OB/GYN care, and some VA hospitals are opening child care centers. But, Four says, there's nothing like just talking with other female vets.
FOUR: They are your sister in arms. They understand you, they understand where you came from.
ALFEIA DEVAUGH GOODWIN: I was very fortunate because I had that. I had someone I could just call and say what do I do?
HOWARD: Each morning, she sends out dozens of encouraging of text messages.
DEVAUGH GOODWIN: So if you need a ride to drill, or if you need someone to call you in the morning, then that's what we need to do. We need to link people up together who can help one another.
HOWARD: For NPR News, I'm Jen Howard in Philadelphia.
GREENE: And our series continues today on All Things Considered with the story of a woman making the transition from the military to a college campus.
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