As the media pays more attention to the invisible scars soldiers can bring home from service, a common picture has emerged: that of the strong, battle-hardened young man who is susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
But there is another face of mental illness in the U.S. Armed Forces, and it’s a female one.
Certainly, far fewer women than men join the armed forces. And until very recently, women were formally banned from combat. But plenty of women veterans are dealing with the unexpected aftereffects of military service.
Here are two women veterans’ stories. Each is coping with a different (but related) mental disorder while serving in the military.
After Mary, 40, was sexually assaulted by a fellow service member, the resultant post-traumatic stress symptoms combined to make her life hellish. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the trauma resulted in a psychiatric diagnosis—in her case, post-traumatic stress disorder.
According to the National Center for PTSD at the United States Department of Veterans Affairs:
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can occur after someone goes through a traumatic event like combat, assault, or disaster. Most people have some stress reactions after a trauma. If the reactions don’t go away over time or disrupt your life, you may have PTSD.
A person with PTSD may go into a fight-or-flight reaction in response to seemingly harmless stimuli like the sound of a car starting or the sight of a door opening.
“I haven’t been terribly quiet about what happened to me, but I do not disclose that I have PTSD. If I did, I fear I would lose my current position within the service and ultimately, be removed from the service.”
Mary is still in the military. She is stationed CONUS (within the continental United States), and she works in the field of health. She’s reticent about details: “I haven’t been terribly quiet about what happened to me, but I do not disclose that I have PTSD. If I did, I fear I would lose my current position within the service and ultimately, be removed from the service.”
She says, “PTSD is insidious; it creeps up on you. First, you may experience a moment of panic when you are in a crowded area. For most of ‘us,’ Wal-Mart is a PTSD nightmare. You may startle easy, way too easily. You’ll never be able to sit with your back to a door or respond in a ‘normal’ manner to someone who catches you off guard. If you don’t relive the experience during the day, your psyche ensures that you work through your issue at night in the form of sheet-tangling, sweat-soaked nightmares that no one should have to endure. These are the nightmares that wake you from the deepest sleep and cast a dark gloom over the whole of the next day.”
She says that for military service members like her (as well as for veterans), the best PTSD support groups are the ones that are closed to civilians. She adds, “Sometimes, there’s things only another service member can understand.”
When asked if she’d still join the military if she had the opportunity to do it all over again, Mary says, “Yes. I’m willing to bet the majority of us would all answer yes.”
What Trina remembers the most about her bout with severe depression was that nobody else in the Navy seemed to notice.
Trina joined up when she was 20 and spent nine years in the Navy. Among other things, she worked on diesel engines as part of her long-term goal to become a professional mechanic. But she tells TakePart that by the end of her service she was “sick of all the ruthless competition just to get promoted. You couldn’t trust anyone.”
She adds, “Also, it was destroying what little mental health I had left.”
According to the Veterans Administration:
Many symptoms of depression overlap with the symptoms of PTSD. For example, with both depression and PTSD, you may have trouble sleeping or keeping your mind focused. You may not feel pleasure or interest in things you used to enjoy. You may not want to be with other people as much. Both PTSD and depression may involve greater irritability. It is quite possible to have both depression and PTSD at the same time.
As Trina tells it, the darkness crept up gradually, eventually affecting her military service. She says, “I went from doing my work, and always looking for more, to doing absolutely nothing and finding ways to not be around, including being gone for two afternoons because I couldn’t face anyone. I was a teacher at our tech school at the time and was known for always being there for the students and helping them out. Suddenly, I avoided all of them. When I did end up in the hospital, everyone was shocked. My Chief even told my parents that he had no idea.”
After a hospital stay to treat severe depression, Trina returned to work. She says she tried to educate her fellow troops about the reality of mental illness, but felt they didn’t listen. And at least one higher-up was particularly insensitive.
Trina tells Take Part, “About six months later, I heard someone very high in our chain of command talking loudly about how a student was faking wanting to kill himself so he could get out of the school.”
Today, Trina is a 31-year-old student in college, using her GI Bill benefits. She discarded her dream of becoming a mechanic and instead seeks a future in the corporate world. She tells people the Navy “literally” drove her crazy.
“It upsets me that mental conditions still aren’t taken seriously, from my experience,” she says.
Even so, Trina is glad she enlisted: “Although it was bad in the end, I still feel that joining was a great choice. Nothing can beat the life experience one gets while serving in the military. I have met some great friends and gained experience that you can’t get anywhere else. The discipline has stuck with me even on the outside.”
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Sara Benincasa is a blogger, comedian, and author of Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom. She has created online content for MTV News, Comedy Central, Vice, Wonkette, Jezebel, CNN and the Huffington Post. She holds a master's degree in education from Teachers College at Columbia University. She lives in Los Angeles, where she is at work on two novels for young adults.