AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Increasingly, the VA and other organizations are recognizing that women leaving military service have unique needs which aren't being met. Here's one telling statistic. Female veterans are nearly 2 1/2 times more likely than civilian women to take their own lives. The VA has recently found that a high number of those suicides come in the first few months after leaving the military. Jay Price of member station WUNC tells us the story of a Marine veteran who struggled during that critical period. He begins with her family in rural Maryland.
JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Deana Martorella Orellana was that girl - the junior high school soccer whiz who made the boys on the field seem frozen in place, so athletic that watching one of her games then or later in high school or college could make you just stop and savor the sheer wonder of human potential. Her mother, Laurel Martorella, says Deana was also beautiful and smart.
LAUREL MARTORELLA: Really smart kid and excelled at anything she tried.
PRICE: And eventually she tried the Marines. In 2010, Deana deployed to combat-torn Helmand Province in Afghanistan. There, she was in one of the small female teams attached to male infantry units to work with the Afghan women and children they encountered. But when Deana came back, something had changed. Deana's sister Robin...
ROBIN JEWELL: But she said that she could everything except for the kids, and I don't know what that means.
PRICE: Robin says whatever the problem was had to do with something Deana saw or experienced involving Afghan children, but Deana never opened up.
ELLEN HARING: The experiences you have on active duty carry with you, and then they manifest as mental wellness challenges as veterans.
PRICE: Retired Army Colonel Ellen Haring is director of research at the Service Women's Action Network, or SWAN. She's studied the effects of serving in the tiny women's teams in combat zones like Deana did. She says the role creates stresses beyond the obvious ones of combat. Women are pulled from the close support networks of their own units, sometimes see heavy fighting and then are sent back.
HARING: So they return to units that didn't know where they'd been. They couldn't kind of hash through traumatic events that they'd been through together because they didn't have anybody else there who'd been through it.
PRICE: Two years after Deana returned from Afghanistan, she left the Marines but stayed close to Camp Lejeune, tending bar and working as a personal trainer. She was planning to start college, but problems piled up. She'd been living with a boyfriend but moved out. She was charged with driving drunk, then charged again. Deana was reaching a tipping point.
JEWELL: Deana was very much a perfectionist, and I think that in her eyes, her life was just failing now.
PRICE: On March 4, 2016, just months after leaving the Marines, Deana went to the VA for help. Her mother says VA officials told her later that Deana agreed to counseling. Then Deana asked a friend to drop her at the house where she'd lived with her boyfriend who wasn't home. She went in the bedroom and retrieved a .45-caliber handgun he kept near the bed. Deana sat on the floor and leaned against a wall. That's how she was found.
MARTORELLA: She wrote a note.
JEWELL: But not a real note.
MARTORELLA: You know, I'm sorry. Just call 911. Take care of the dogs. Don't come in the bedroom.
PRICE: The medical examiner's report says Deana was wearing a fitness band and a plastic bracelet. In her pocket was a sheaf of handwritten inspirational quotes - words, as they say, to live by. A VA official later told her family that Deana had PTSD related to combat, which she had never even told them she'd experienced. Deana's family doesn't blame the VA or the military. The Department of Defense has a transition program for outgoing service members, but Haring says it needs to be better tailored for women.
HARING: DOD has gotten much better. I went through the TAP program - Transition Assistance Program. It's pretty robust, relatively speaking, to what has been in the past. But then once you're out, it's like, OK, you're out.
PRICE: In Deana's hometown in western Pennsylvania, her family has started a small foundation in her name. It gives scholarships to high-achieving girls and raises awareness about military suicide, preserving her memory in the classrooms where she did so well and on all of those soccer fields were Deana was so alive. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Arnold, Md.
CORNISH: Tomorrow, Jay will report on how female vets are setting up their own support systems.
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