Traumatized Female Vets Face Uphill Battle

Women returning from Afghanistan, Iraq find male-centric healthcare.

ByABC News
March 1, 2010, 2:35 PM

March 2, 2010— -- The first day Kristine Wise returned from eight months military service in Iraq, she knew something was wrong. Driving from San Diego to Bakersfield to see her brother, the road signs triggered flashbacks.

"One said 'railroad,' but instead I saw 'roadside' and in my mind a roadside bomb," said Wise, who supplied parts to combat vehicles in the first wave of the war. "I would see 'beware' and my mind would see 'Baghdad.' I couldn't explain it."

The depression and panic attacks began long before her honorable discharge in 2004, but the battle to get the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to take her symptoms seriously was just as difficult.

"They had a hard time comprehending I was a combat vet and didn't treat me with the same respect," said Wise, now 40 and rated 10 percent disabled for post traumatic stress disorder.

Wise is one of more than 230,000 women -- about 11 percent of the U.S. military -- who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As of the third quarter in 2009, the VA reported that 11,713 of the women evaluated received a diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Women have experienced the same psychological and emotional trauma as their male counterparts, but the VA has only begun to pay attention to their gender-specific needs, according to to "Combat to Community," a 2009 report conducted the veterans' advocacy group, Swords to Plowshares.

The number of women in all branches of the military has doubled in the last 30 years, and is expected to double again in the next decade, the VA estimates.

Women are enrolling in VA healthcare at "historical rates," about 44 percent of all Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, but say they face roadblocks to good care.

"In case after case, Jack and Jill were both deployed and were in the same fire fight," said Tia Christopher, a Navy veteran from Washington state, who is being treated for PTSD caused by sexual assault.

"He's decorated and she's not because she's in support instead of in combat," she said.

These veterans are also plagued with problems unique to their gender -- sexual harassment, guilt over leaving children behind and a more difficult time transitioning back to civilian life, according to Christopher, an associate for the Iraq Veterans Project.

They are younger than their male peers -- more than 66 percent of all females seeking care are under 30, according to the VA. And some say that exposure to war conditions can also compromise their reproductive health.

Kristine Wise said she went into "out-of-control stress mode" shortly after she arrived in Kuwait in 2003, where desert temperatures soared to 120 degrees and mortar fire hit several times a day.

Later, on convoys with combat troops in Baghdad, she witnessed repeated rocket grenade attacks.

While stationed at the airport, 20 rounds of mortar fire hit a day. "I can hear it in the air, like a whirling sound, whistling," she said.

Even today, she can't cope with California's summer heat. "It was so intense over there and sometimes I panic," said Wise. "It's like a part of my body is burning."