WOMEN TAKE PART IN ‘THIS MAN’S ARMY’

THE WAR BACK HOME

DEC. 21: Veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan routinely overcome horrid wounds and loss of limbs, but equally formidable foes are the mental effects of head injuries, constant or repeated exposure to danger and making decisions of awesome consequence.

LAST SUNDAY: When an American dies in combat, the warrior’s loss leaves a hole in American hearts.

TODAY: Never before has America relied so heavily on women in its armed forces, and rarely in recent years have reserves and National Guardsmen been so involved. But male or female, regular or reserve, veterans don’t always find it easy to resume civilian careers or start new ones, and the problem predated the current hard times.

NEXT SUNDAY: Ideas abound toward a better deal for veterans. Here are some from legislators, advocates, national veterans organizations, and local veterans.

Denisse Ramos of Las Vegas helped pick up the pieces of fellow U.S. soldiers who died when an enemy mortar blasted their camp in Iraq.

Sharon Dixon of North Las Vegas was taking the pulse of a military detainee shot during a prison riot. She watched the Iraqi pale and die before medical help arrived.

Nevada women are fighting the global war on terrorism, too. Just like the guys, they are getting injured, winning Purple Hearts and then striving to fit back in at home. Just like the guys, they are proud to have served.

With no more military draft to guarantee manpower for the U.S. armed forces, women are critical to the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

All veterans who deployed as National Guard or reserve have to tangle with the present bear economy to find civilian employment on their return. But, national data show, female soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are more likely than the men to face several further hardships.

They are far more likely than the men to have suffered military sexual trauma while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, according to the federal Department of Veterans Affairs itself. The VA defines military sexual trauma as a sexual assault, sexual battery or being threatened for sex.

The rate of military sexual trauma is one in seven — or 15 percent — of female vets from the two current wars who then access the VA for services, compared to less than 1 percent of male counterparts who have gone to the VA.

And, after women exit the military, they also disproportionately face “the difficulties of being thrust into a caregiving role, child birth and … being less likely to have military service recognized or appreciated,” according to sponsors of a U.S. Senate bill to improve health care for female veterans.

“Yeah, people ask if my husband is military,” says Spc. Veronica Delarosa, 28, whose Mustang bears the veterans license plate she earned on her own.

HER BOOTS ON THE GROUND

A single parent, Delarosa had to send her now 8-year-old son Tommy away to her parents in Texas while she was overseas. Delarosa and her Army Guard unit, the Henderson-based 72nd Military Police Company, returned in September from Iraq, where they guarded and transported military prisoners.

Sgt. Deborah Galan got back to Las Vegas in November from Afghanistan, where she served with the Army Reserve 382nd Military Police Detachment.

Sgt. Maj. Rhonda Decker of Las Vegas, also a Desert Storm veteran, was stationed at a Kuwaiti harbor in 2004-2005, with a California-based Army Reserve “terminal” battalion coordinating off-loading and distribution of equipment to troops.

Debra Cole, now a student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, deployed with the Air Force to Iraq in 2004-2005, where she maintained aircraft.

Dixon and Ramos both went to Iraq in 2003 with the 72nd, where they helped ready the empty Abu Ghraib, a former civilian prison, to house Iraqi military prisoners. The site became infamous after their deployment, when subsequent troops committed unlawful indignities against Abu Ghraib prisoners.

Dixon, a sergeant, and eight others were en route to Baghdad when an IED — improvised explosive device — exploded under their 2-ton truck, resulting in injuries. Four of the nine, including Dixon, won the Purple Heart.

Ramos went back to Iraq with the 72nd in 2008, this time as an officer. Between deployments, she had joined the Reserve Officer Training Corps and graduated from UNLV. Commanding males is not hard when soldiers simply “respect the rank,” says the female first lieutenant.

IRAQIS RUBBED WRONG WAY

Gender clash is unavoidable for female soldiers who deal with male Iraqis, women from the 72nd Military Police learned.

Prisoners, who were largely men, had a “hard time respecting women. It’s not in their culture for women to be in charge of them,” says Pfc. Tara Ketchem. If she happened to rest her feet on a rail while on tower duty, the prisoners below might spit or give her dirty looks, because showing the sole of one’s foot is an insult. Coming from a woman, the insult intensified.

Even male Iraqis who were civilian contractors or military personnel sometimes bucked instructions if they came from an American woman. When Delarosa drove a truck to pick up material from Iraqi suppliers, she periodically had to radio a male superior, for him to repeat her instructions to the skeptical Iraqi.

DEALING WITH U.S. SOLDIERS

Ketchem’s fellow soldiers would sometimes tease female guards for being lazy or useless because the women — out of respect for Muslim culture — were not allowed to hand search male prisoners.

“I want to make sure (to convey that the teasing) was all in good fun,” she emphasizes.

The Veterans Affairs group that studied military sexual trauma among the forces in Iraq and Afghanistan just presented its findings in October at a public-health conference in San Diego. Soldiers who screened positive for military sexual trauma, it found, are three times more likely to be diagnosed with such conditions as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety or substance abuse. The VA defines sexual trauma carefully, to exclude stray sex-based comments or the sight of a girlie calendar.

Media coverage has identified soldiers walking alone to a camp latrine late at night as vulnerable to sexual assault. For sanitation reasons, military latrines are often remote from sleeping quarters.

But victims are apt not to report sexual trauma, as implicating superiors or even peers may impair advancement in the military, some women’s advocates have said.

For any deployed female soldier who doesn’t want to wake a “battle buddy” just to go to the bathroom at night, Delarosa has blunt advice: “Carry your weapon.”

None of the Nevada women vets interviewed acknowledged being a victim or knowing a female victim of military sexual trauma. They attributed that to good cohesion in their units. In Iraq, if a soldier from a different unit hassled Delarosa in a suggestive way, she asked platoon “brothers” to tell him to leave her alone.

“It gets you off that normal female (path),” is how Ramos summarizes her choice to join the military and serve in a theater of war.

And yet, that path is becoming increasingly female.

Currently, women account for 8 percent of veterans from all eras, according to Irene Trowell, director of the federal Center for Women Veterans. By 2020 — fueled by their participation in the global war on terror — women will grow to about 10 percent of all U.S. veterans, Trowell predicts.

Women still in the military — whom the VA doesn’t yet count as veterans — range today from approximately 6 percent of Marines to 20 percent of Air Force personnel, according to the Women in the Military Project of the Women’s Research & Education Institute. Its demographic research is used by the VA, Trowell said.

Contact reporter Joan Whitely at jwhitely@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0268.

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