How We're Failing Our Female Veterans

Women are indispensable to the U.S. military. But when they get home, often suffering from mental or physical injuries, the veterans face a new battle: coping with a medical system still tailored to men

  • Photograph by Robyn Twomey for TIME

    June Moss, 38, an army veteran who served for a decade and half around the world now suffers from PTSD.

    Shiloh Morrison spent two months as a truck gunner in Iraq before transferring to Kuwait in 2007 to work at the mortuary that takes in every U.S. military casualty killed in theater. There were 423 on her watch. During her four months in the morgue, the Marine corporal went only one 24-hour period without helping prepare a body for autopsy. It was her job to give the commands to play taps and to salute those heading home for the last time. She calls them "fallen angels," the troops whose caskets she draped with American flags before loading them onto a plane. Still haunted by their faces, the soft-spoken 25-year-old had been home just a month or two when a man at her gym spotted her in a Marines T-shirt and asked whether her husband had served. "I just started laying into him," she recalls. "I'm a Marine, you a______." Morrison, who is still in the Marine Reserves, just finished her fourth month of treatment for anger management.

    June Moss, 39, maneuvered a Humvee around charred corpses and still smoking shrapnel in Iraq in 2003. The Army driver and mechanic once watched a Black Hawk helicopter mow down insurgents a few hundred yards away. But when she called her father to tell him how tough things were, he didn't get it. "He was kind of like, 'Oh, well, you just fix the trucks. You don't have to worry about nothing,'" she recalls. "I don't know where people get the idea that women aren't out there, they don't see anything, they're just support." At home, after she was discharged from the military but before she was diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the single mother couldn't find a job that paid enough to support her and two children. In 2005 her house went into foreclosure, and the next year she and her kids became homeless — a predicament made more painful by the fact that of the nearly 500 community homeless shelters funded by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), only seven provide accommodations specifically for families. That year, Moss tried to kill herself.

    Even women who are never deployed to war zones have trouble recovering from certain military wounds. A 25-year-old former Air Force intelligence interceptor who asked that TIME not print her real name was raped by a fellow service member and then bullied by another into dropping criminal charges. The same woman — call her Jennifer Smith — who was voted class clown in high school not so long ago, now avoids crowds. She sought treatment at two big-city veterans' hospitals but quickly left one of them in part because the waiting room was swarming with male veterans. She says they made her feel unsafe, a sentiment often expressed by the 22% of women seeking care at the VA who have experienced sexual trauma — and who are nine times more likely to suffer from PTSD, which, along with other mental-health issues, afflicts roughly 1 in 10 soldiers returning from Iraq.

    More than 230,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past nine years. Women account for 15% of the active-duty military. But when they arrive back home, become civilians once again and start seeking help for PTSD, musculoskeletal problems, reproductive disorders and other maladies, they are shuffled into a veterans' hospital system that can feel like a relic from World War I, back when the phrases our soldiers and our boys were interchangeable. The number of female veterans being treated by the VA has more than doubled since 2004 and is expected to double again by 2015. This is all happening at a time when the problems of women who have seen combat or had to work near a fluid front line are just beginning to be understood. The VA is struggling to add resources and train its staff to handle the growing case file of female vets. But as with an aircraft carrier, it takes a while to change course. And many of the women who really need help are stuck in a holding pattern.

    In Search of Privacy
    With the exception of nurses, women weren't allowed to serve in the regular or reserve forces during peacetime until 1948. World War I produced some 25,000 female veterans; an additional 319,000 women served in World War II. By the time the Vietnam War ended, nearly 1 million living American women had served their country in the military, making up 3.5% of veterans overall. But the VA didn't start providing medical and mental-health services to women until 1988.

    The modern veterans' hospital system, which was created in 1930 to standardize care for retired service members and reservists, is largely separate from military hospitals, and for the past two decades it has been trying to meet female veterans' gynecologic and other gender-specific needs. But progress has been slow.

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