Coming home

Minnesota female veterans face unique challenges

Chante Wolf was in the U.S. Air Force for 12 years, returning to civilian life in 1992 after the first Gulf war. But the soldier-turned-activist has traveled a long road to resolving the trauma of what she calls regular sexual harassment and near-rape while serving her country.

“It’s only recently that I started dealing with-started talking about in therapy-the sexual stuff, knowing that the longer this goes on the deeper this wound will go,” said Wolf, now 50. “You just bury it.”

The stress first surfaced in verbal attacks against her parents. Added to the normal anxiety veterans often face-Wolf slept with a loaded .357 magnum under her pillow during her first few years back-the sexual trauma nearly put the veteran over the top. She drank herself to sleep for many years.

That extra anguish from sexual assault and sexual harassment is not something every female vet experiences. But it’s one of several challenges female vets face when returning to civilian life. So is returning to societal norms of female behavior and resuming parenting and other family roles that may differ dramatically from being a soldier. That’s something Gina Sanders can testify to.

Becoming mom again
Sanders (not her real name), 25, came home to her son and found he was not quite the same. A sergeant who had served in Iraq, she had to accept that her toddler had experienced milestones without her. Her son’s father took over parenting-and continued even after she first returned from duty.

“Coming home to your family, you’re very happy to be home. You’re thinking that the family you come home to are the same as when you left, which is not true-they had their own struggles while you’re away,” said Sanders, 25.

Eager as she is to become her son’s most important parent-Sanders is a single mom-she also misses aspects of the life she left behind, especially the female soldiers who shared her experiences. The pleasure of being with her son has been the best part of coming home.

“It is a difficult transition coming home from the deployment. We tend to come back as stronger, more independent women,” said Brandi N. Wilson, women veterans coordinator, Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs. Wilson sees among women vets challenged by parenting and interpersonal relating. She added that female vets often have a harder time finding the support they need.

Growing numbers
By the end of 2008, Minnesota will have an estimated 22,945 female veterans, according to the Minnesota Department of Veterans Affairs. Of that 22,945, about 8,705 have served in the Persian Gulf (either the first Gulf war, in 1990, or the more recent war in Iraq).

Who is GI Jane?
Although the numbers of female veterans are increasing, the lack of studies and information about female veterans makes it difficult to gauge the needs of returning female soldiers. Mainstream media coverage of returning veterans often makes little or no mention of the women who served.

Andrea Lindgren, a state researcher with the Minnesota Office on the Economic Status of Women (OESW) commented on the difficulty of identifying the specific needs of female veterans. “There’s not a lot of information out there,” said Lindgren. “I think it’s cultural-there may be a hesitancy to acknowledge that there exist issues related to being female.”

Sexual trauma
One thing we do know is that female soldiers are likely to experience some form of sexual abuse. A 2003 study by Dr. Anne Sadler of the Iowa VA Medical Center found 28 percent of female vets had been victims of military sexual trauma while on active duty-a much larger percentage than male veterans reporting such trauma. A 2006 U.S. Department of Defense report on rape found that reported sexual assaults jumped 73 percent from 2004 to 2006, from 1,700 to 2,947 reported incidents. And a recent New York Times story said about 40 percent of homeless female vets reported being sexually assaulted by male U.S. soldiers while in the military.

Many female veterans are reluctant to talk about sexual trauma or even lesser challenges, especially with someone outside the military, Wilson said. Silence and denial are also common responses for victims of sexual assault, in or outside the military.

“They tend to avoid places or objects which bring up memories of the incident,” Wilson said. “Often they will turn to drugs or alcohol to avoid the feelings they experience to include the depression and post traumatic stress disorder they develop. … A lot of women don’t view themselves necessarily as victims and will even blame themselves. Some do find counseling and work with counselors to learn to cope with what happened to them. “

Waterproofing her knife
Wolf sought counseling to help confront her sexual trauma. She’s also become an activist with Veterans for Peace as a way to deal with what she called a lack of support for female veterans.

“The mission is to win war using all means necessary, including violence. That means violence against us as women,” said Wolf.

After being “assaulted, touched, grabbed and propositioned” dozens of times over 12 years-including by superiors who she said were never disciplined-Wolf learned how to keep herself unscathed physically, if not emotionally. She hung back as she watched naïve newcomers eagerly go to officers’ parties on the restricted part of the base, and had to listen to their accounts of what occurred (“they were there to service the men”). She learned to waterproof her knife so she could take showers. No female soldier in her right mind went to the shower on base alone, she said. And although she is a lesbian, Wolf became the girlfriend of a male soldier to avoid being raped or singled out and ridiculed as a lesbian.

She learned these defense tactics only after a near-rape. There were numerous occasions, she said, and plenty of willing comrades standing by to avert their gaze or shut a door behind a male superior and herself. Wolf escaped those close calls by having emergency situations arise: She was sent home for the unexpected death of a relative and used that as a way out of a coerced invitation by one of her superiors to come with him to a weekend island sex party.

And there were the less overt but still anxiety-producing situations that went with the culture.

“The day I was headed home on a C-141 out of Germany, I was the only female on board. And as the talk among my male comrades turned … to sex and what they were expecting to get once they arrived home, it scared the fuck out of me,” she recalled. “Because no one’s going to say anything if anyone tries something on me. I spent the whole trip home scared, just like I’d been half the time over there.”

Being “a girl” again
Other female veterans report experiencing difficulties in areas that many women take as a given. Morgan Hennessy, who served an extended 16-month tour in Iraq as part of the Minnesota National Guard, forgot how to behave “like a girl.”

“Deciding what to wear is really hard when you haven’t done it for a while-it takes me forever to get ready and to decide what to wear,” said Hennessy, 21. “You get tired of looking like a boy all the time. We would buy pink tennis shoes and stuff online and wear them in our rooms.”

Hennessy, a native of southern Minnesota who attends the University of Minnesota, also has had to change how she talks.

“I definitely had to change my language a lot when I got back-in the Army, you get used to being more crude,” recalled Hennessy. “I went to visit my aunt and she couldn’t believe how crude I talked.”

Wolf experienced a similar reaction from her parents when she returned from the military years ago. But in her case, it was profanity as well as the anger and aggression behind it.

“I was so foul-mouthed and treated my parents just terribly,” Wolf said. “I was so used to being violent and thinking ‘nobody’s going to fuck with me again.’ All vets have a hard time coming home and staying focused on something because of trauma-it’s all been stirred up.”

Out of place
Sitting in class with other University of Minnesota students, Hennessy felt alone and disconnected. No one knew what she had done for the last two years. So much of what was mundane to them was new to her-cell phones, wearing normal clothes, the news. “I felt old, out of place and uncomfortable,” she recalled.

Hennessy has an especially hard time hearing criticism of the war.

“It’s really hard to hear these people who have never been there say they don’t want us there,” she said. “I have seen Iraqi soldiers with missing limbs thanking us for being there. There is a lot of good stuff going on over there but the press doesn’t show it.”

One of the most important things for Hennessy has been having other vets nearby. She said that the University of Minnesota’s Veterans Transition Center has been a “crucial” part of her support system.

Phiengtavanh Savatdy, 26, has had to rely more on family since returning from Iraq. Sometimes she fights her impatience as well as bouts of depression.

“I have been short-tempered at family,” said the Coon Rapids woman, who attends St. Cloud State University and is studying to become a teacher. “I’m not sure why, but sometimes I would break down and cry when I am overcome with feelings of sadness and depression.”

Experts say Savatdy’s feelings are common in all vets.

Reaching out for support
What may be different, however, is that male vets often have more people-moms, wives, male comrades-to help them cope with their feelings and re-entry into civilian life. “When a male soldier returns home, he has to work himself back into the head of household because his wife has picked up his responsibilities-she doesn’t necessarily … turn everything back over to him immediately,” the V.A.’s Wilson said. “But when a woman comes home, typically the man is ready to give back her responsibilities and will often try to speed the transition up so that it becomes uncomfortable and difficult for her.”

And having the time to transition is crucial for women veterans. According to a Veteran’s Administration study, “Women in the military are at high risk for exposure to traumatic events, especially during times of war.” The same study found that women are two and a half times more likely to experience PTSD than men. Risk factors for PTSD include severe trauma and sexual assault.

The study concluded that “future studies are needed to better understand the effects of women’s exposure to both combat and sexual assault.” It made no mention of a need for women-specific services.

Women vets call for change
Female soldiers today serve in more combat positions than ever before. They experience the violence of war itself and violence from some of their own comrades. Sexual assault and sexual harassment, which affect a much higher percentage of female rather than male soldiers, have become a top problem in the U.S. military. The government has responded with new procedures and requirements for preventing and dealing with any incident and has even opened a special facility for victims of sexual assault. Little data exists to determine if those efforts have helped.

Women Veterans of America, a national group, has called for the permanent posting at every U.S. military base a zero-tolerance policy regarding sexual harassment, discrimination and abuse.

The group’s website notes that despite highly publicized sex scandals (Tailhook perhaps the biggest), none of the sexual harassment or sexual assaults to date “have produced penalties for the sexual predators … our women in the military remain at risk from their comrades in arms.”

The group wants changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice to put teeth into punishment for sexual harassment or assault. Those familiar with the system report that the norm in responding to accusations of sexual harassment and sometimes even assault is to do nothing or to give administrative punishments that don’t hurt the perpetrator’s career. Meanwhile, advocates for female soldiers say countless women have lost or severely limited their military careers simply for refusing a sexual come-on or for reporting an inappropriate comment or behavior.

Online resources
Minn. Department of Veteran
Minn. Office on the Economic Status of
Veterans for
University of Minnesota Veteran’s Transition
Women Veterans of

Female vets and rape:
Nearly one-third of a nationwide sample of female veterans seeking V.A. health care said they experienced rape or attempted rape during their service. Among them:
• 37 percent said they were raped multiple times
• 14 percent reported they were gang-raped.

Family matters
43% of female vets have at least one child, compared to 22% of male vets.
56% of female vets are married, compared to 72% of male vets.