When retired Army Staff Sgt. June Moss returned from Iraq, she had to explain to her children why she couldn’t hug them. Any embrace longer than two seconds made her skin feel like it was on fire.
“When I got back, my kids were really clingy,” Moss says. “They wanted affection. But, what do you say to a child?”
At night, sleep never came. Instead, Moss baked cupcakes until dawn. At playgrounds, surrounded by the noise and chaos of crowds, Moss felt like her chest was going to explode. Worse, she was afraid she’d hurt someone.
“I wasn’t the same person when I came home,” says Moss, who returned from Iraq in August 2003 and now lives in East Palo Alto. “I was different. I was cold.”
When imagining a struggling war veteran, it’s likely few people picture a young woman such as Moss, who was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. But women make up 15 percent of active-duty military members, and the Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that by the end of 2020, women will represent 10 percent of the nation’s veteran population.
And though military and congressional policy says women can’t participate in direct ground combat, women carry guns, and use them. They drive Humvees hit by improvised explosive devices. They interrogate, and witness bloodshed. But for women, there is a major difference. They come home to a society that for the most part doesn’t understand — or accept — that they’re serving
in the line of fire.
As a result, the feelings of isolation can be even more overwhelming, especially since a woman is often one of few in her unit, says Natara Garovoy, program director of the Women’s Prevention, Outreach and Education Center for the VA Palo Alto Health Care System.
Fear of assault
Complicating matters, some female soldiers live in fear of being attacked by one of their own. In 2008, the VA reported that one in five women screened for military sexual trauma had been sexually harassed or assaulted by a fellow soldier.
Moss did little alone, whether it was burning confidential papers or taking out the trash. But she still feared for her safety, especially at night. “You already feared for your life,” Moss says, “but the thought of a soldier attacking another soldier?”
The mother of two spent eight months in 2003 as a light-wheel vehicle mechanic with the Third Infantry Division. As she drove through bustling marketplaces, often under aerial or ground fire, she clutched the steering wheel, scanning for suicide bombers. To get through those drives, she prayed.
“I was calling to God really heavily,” Moss says. “I was scared for my life every day, not knowing if I was going to come home to my children and what loss they would have to bear. So I just had to have my wits about me and believe in my training.”
Back at the base, Moss struggled with her identity. She was a soldier, wife to a soldier (her now ex-husband, who was also in the Army), her family’s primary caregiver and a mechanic. Still, she tried to blend in, especially since she was the only woman in her unit. She cut her hair short. She wore boxer shorts and big T-shirts to hide her figure. She tried to be overly tough and stand up for herself, she says, particularly when male soldiers made off-color remarks or unwanted gestures.
“You just have to know when to say, ‘Stop. I don’t appreciate that,’ ” Moss says.
Reconciling identity is among the biggest issues Tia Christopher sees in her work with female veterans. As the women veterans coordinator for Swords to Plowshares’ Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Project, Christopher helps homeless and low-income women obtain medical care, housing and job training upon returning from war.
“So many of my female clients who were in Iraq put up with things, even injuries, because they don’t want to be that girl (who complains),” she says. “They soldier on and silently bear that burden. But you can lose a certain amount of your femininity.”
On the upside, the military has recognized and is beginning to rectify the lack of postwar support for women. Historically, female veterans have had a hard time gaining access to services because facilities aren’t welcoming or because they didn’t know the VA served them, says Garovoy, a clinical psychologist. Due to the increase of women in the military — 20 percent of new recruits are female — programs tailored for women are increasing. Still, there are barriers. Even diagnosing post-traumatic stress disorder is a major issue.
“Because women serving in Iraq are often performing duties not in their job title, and because of the nature of the warfare, they are coming back with symptoms of the disorder and having to deal with the burden of proof,” Christopher says.
Returning to the states, Moss, then 32, was at first misdiagnosed. Had she been a man, the diagnosis might have been swifter, Moss says.
“They probably thought, ‘Oh you’re a woman. You must have depression,’ ” she says.
Many don’t seek help
Treatment is equally challenging. “If you’re the only woman in a support group, you might not feel comfortable and are less likely to go back,” Christopher says. At groups for women dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, the focus is often on sexual trauma, which further alienates those who are there for combat-related traumas, Christopher adds.
Sgt. Myrna Hernandez, of Concord, wasn’t diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder for years. She didn’t seek help because she didn’t want to admit something was wrong. When Hernandez, who served as maintenance support for Pittsburg’s 870th Military Police Company, returned from Iraq in 2004, her mood was sour. She was anti-social, she says, and turned to drinking. On good nights, she got three hours of sleep.
She was also nervous about reuniting with her 6-year-old son, Zen. Hernandez had two opportunities to come home — including vacation time while she was in Iraq — but she chose to stay away.
“It was pretty rough,” recalls Hernandez, who was 26 at the time and one of six women in her company. “But I thought it would be too difficult for him to see me and have to say goodbye again.”
Meanwhile, at the base, Hernandez was dealing with more difficulties. She was one of three women who accused their commanding captain, Leo Merck, of peering beneath a shower wall and snapping nude photographs of them at Abu Ghraib. In a deal to avoid a court-martial, Merck resigned from the National Guard in November 2003. In May 2004, Hernandez told the Bay Area News Group that she saw Merck taking the photos.
Still, she’s not bitter.
“For most people, (the experience) would turn them against the military,” says Hernandez, who did prisoner processing and other duties similar to military police. “But I can’t let the actions of a few people ultimately change how I feel about my service.”
Today, Hernandez works as a technician in the Army Reserves. She attends support groups at the Concord Vet Center but is usually the only woman.
As President Barack Obama prepares to send more troops to Afghanistan, Hernandez braces herself for the possibility of another deployment.
“If I’m told I have to go, I will,” she says. “At the same time, it’s pretty scary. I guess knowing you have a job to do kind of overshadows that.”
Ultimately, she is proud of the contribution she and all women are making in the military. “We don’t do infantry jobs, but I think we’ve come a long way since the image of the nurse in heels,” she says.
Moss feels similar pride. Last month, after 12 years of service, she permanently retired from the military, and she works as an assistant in chaplain services for the VA Palo Alto Health Care System. She still struggles with her symptoms, but because she knows her triggers, she avoids them.
At restaurants, she sits in a corner booth that allows her an unobstructed view, should there be a sudden or loud noise. When she picks up her children up at school, she calls the school secretary to send them outside. She can’t wait in the busy parking lot with the other parents.
In the end, though, Moss measures her progress by the duration of her embraces. When her children need a hug, they can now linger in her arms for a full 10 seconds.