Like men, women veterans bring problems home from war

Women fought to be treated as the equals of men in the U.S. military, and now some of them find they’re equal to men in another way: post-traumatic stress disorder.

Marine Jessica Goodell had one of the most gruesome jobs in Iraq. She picked up body parts of American soldiers to return them home for burial. Sometimes those remains were vaporized mush, she recalled.

"We never rid ourselves of the smell of death," she said.

In 2005, she came home to fight other battles, battles with PTSD, depression and substance abuse. She didn’t tell her friends she was a veteran.

When she finally reached out for help, she wrote a journal, that turned into a book, "Shade It Black: Death and After in Iraq."

But there are differences between how men and women cope when coming home from deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan, and not much is known about those differences.

University of Nevada, Las Vegas graduate student Meghan Pierce is conducting the first research into how hormonal differences correlate with PTSD among women warriors. It’s an effort to pinpoint the differences and find more gender specific treatments for women veterans. Yet she is having trouble finding veterans to participate in her study.

Goodell and Pierce were among the speakers on the 2nd Annual UNLV Combat Trauma Conference , this one focusing on women veterans’ issues.

The conference focused on the problems, like the fact that women became problem drinkers faster than men, and the solutions.

Kim Olson was among the first group of women pilots in the U.S. Air Force. She now is executive director of Grace After Fire, a Texas-based nonprofit designed to help women veterans.

The Veterans Affairs system is dedicated to helping, but the VA’s model of a veteran is a 60-year-old man, not a minority woman who is married with two kids and going through multiple deployments, Olson said.

Grace After Fire operates under the premise that the only way women veterans can heal is through peer-to-peer contact, so that’s the system serving the 155,625 women veterans in Texas. It’s the first and only operation of its kind, Olson said. All calls are answered by women veterans. Service providers understand the special needs of veterans.

As UNLV’s Larry Ashley, one of the organizers of the event and a recognized expert on PTSD, said bluntly, "To survive in war, you become an animal and you do shit."

That’s true for men and women. But they process it differently and heal differently on the inside.

In a speech that brought 150 women to a standing ovation last week, Olson talked about the invisible wounds of combat.

"Peace finally comes when you forgive yourself," she said. "We have to help our women warriors find peace."

Grace After Fire started in 2004 with two employees and a budget of $200,000 the first year and currently has 15 employees and a budget of $1.5 million.

Nevada should have a program like Grace After Fire. But for a program like that to start in Nevada, it requires women veterans helping other women veterans, and they can’t count on tax dollars to fund it. The money for new programs for old problems isn’t there.

Olson said the solution is to "do something." Donate money, give of your time and your talents. Pierce’s research at UNLV on the hormones and PTSD is a positive step. … If only she can get those volunteers. Hint, hint, the UNLV researcher is looking for women veterans for her study.

Memorial Day is the right day to think of what we can do to help our wounded warriors, male and female. But it’s not the only day they deserve our consideration.

Let’s honor those who died in military service, but let’s also help those who lived yet can’t forget the smell of death.

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. Email her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call her at (702) 383-0275. She also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/Morrison.

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