As thousands of U.S. troops return home in the first wave of rotations out of Iraq, Department of Veterans Affairs (search) facilities, military hospitals and private assistance programs are gearing up to provide services to the largest pool of women veterans ever to serve simultaneously in a combat zone.
About 60,000 female troops have been serving, or have already returned from Operation Iraqi Freedom (search) or Operation Enduring Freedom (search) in Afghanistan, according to the Department of Defense. That number represents about 10 percent of the total U.S. forces to have been deployed in those theaters.
Beginning in January, the approximately 130,000 U.S. troops serving in Iraq since the beginning of the war started returning home. Over the coming months, they will be replaced by a more mobile, less heavily armed force of about 110,000.
Advocates preparing for the unprecedented influx of female soldiers say many of them will carry their own set of physical and emotional scars from heavy combat situations.
“We have yet to really appreciate the types of gender-specific health care issues these women have been subjected to during this campaign,” said Carole L. Turner, an Air Force veteran and director of the VA Women Veteran’s Health Program (search). “We have a lot to learn.”
Although women have been serving in the military throughout the history of this country, the numbers of women serving in combat-related areas has never been matched. In addition to active duty servicewomen, women in National Guard and Reserve units have been called to serve.
And while they are not allowed to serve in combat, many have been serving as military police in urban hotbeds like Baghdad, which experts say is as close to combat as one can get.
“They’ve been doing a great job,” said Elaine Donnelly, director of the Center for Military Readiness (search). “I’ve been really impressed with how well the women have been doing over there — how patriotic they are, and how strong.”
According to defense sources, at least 13 women have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since the start of operations. The DoD does not have statistics on the number of women wounded, though it reports 3,015 hostile and non-hostile U.S. casualties in Iraq as of Tuesday.
The United States currently has about 1.6 million women veterans, most of whom served during the period around the Persian Gulf War. The number does not reflect women deployed in recent campaigns.
Lory Manning, a retired U.S. Navy captain and project director for the Women in the Military project with the Women’s Research and Education Institute (search), said women have faced trauma in combat situations before, especially those serving as nurses in Vietnam and World War II. The big difference now, though, is the greater numbers.
“I don’t think what the women are doing as MPs is any more stressful than what some of these combat nurses went through, but I think there are a lot more women going through it right now,” she said.
“I’m sure there will be more women with combat stress than in earlier wars,” Manning said.
The American public was first alerted to the intensity under which women were serving with the news of Jessica Lynch (search), Lori Piestewa and Shoshana Johnson, three female soldiers who were captured by enemy forces when their convoy was ambushed in March. Lynch and Johnson, both severely wounded, were eventually rescued and made it home; Piestewa died after the attack.
Further news reports indicate women are returning with wounds similar to their male counterparts, including lost limbs from mortar attacks and suicide bombings. Others have conditions unique to their sex — unplanned pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and sexual trauma, resulting from assault.
According to Christine Hansen at the Miles Foundation (search) in Connecticut, several women veterans have sought out their sexual assault crisis services since the war began.
“We have provided information, counseling — a gamut of services — to about 38 women who have been deployed overseas — mostly in Iraq and Kuwait” who have been assaulted by fellow soldiers, said Hansen, who added that some women reported the crimes to military authorities, but most had not.
“We have colleagues in rape crisis centers across the country who have seen women soldiers come through their doors,” she added. “That number by no means represents the whole.”
The DoD has launched a probe into the treatment of servicewomen in the Iraq war zone who have reported sexual assaults by their male comrades-in-arms, the Pentagon announced Friday. It also will review the availability of ways for victims to report assaults.
"I am concerned about recent reports regarding allegations of sexual assaults on service members deployed to Iraq and Kuwait," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wrote in a memo to David Chu, the Pentagon's undersecretary for personnel and readiness, who is conducting the review.
Women veterans and health officials at Veterans Affairs say sexual assault is an unfortunate fact of life in wartime. A study done by VA researchers found that 7 percent of the 40,782 women deployed in the Persian Gulf War said they were sexually assaulted while deployed.
Veterans’ advocates say the VA has been on top of the issue, and has incorporated services for returning soldiers who leave active duty with a range of physical and mental health needs.
Turner said VA hospitals and clinics will be providing services for pregnancies, gynecological health issues and sexual trauma. Female soldiers will also receive counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder (search) as well as separation anxiety and problems re-entering the society.
Colleen Adams Mussolino, a Vietnam veteran and vice-commander of the Women Veterans of America (search), said she is impressed with the improvements made to services for women over the years.
“With more and more women coming in, the VA has expanded over the years in realizing the needs of women veterans — thank God for that,” she said. “When any soldier comes home, they need to be treated with respect and get all of the support they can get because no one knows what they went through.”