“Until 2013 women were formally excluded from direct ground combat. That may be changing for some women now. Yet deployments to combat zones inherently involve risk of combat exposures because there is no front line in the current conflict.”Rachel Sayko Adams, a scientist at the Institute for Behavioral Health at the University of South Carolina
Women didn’t officially serve in ground combat positions until 2013. However, many of them did their jobs in real-time combat settings, often under direct fire. Despite this, research on how deployment affects women is limited. Scientists discussed the need for more research and other post-deployment concerns that affect female service members during a webinar hosted by the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.
Where’s the Data?
Almost half of female service members eligible for care through the Defense Health Agency do not use it. This lack of use makes it harder to gather data on their post-combat experiences. Also, most of the post-deployment studies on PTSD and substance use disorder occurred before women openly served in combat. This means most deployment-related studies do not accurately reflect the experiences of women.
In addition to routine post-deployment screenings, service members can self-report about their health and wellness. Reports from female service members show higher instances of emotional difficulties, overall poor health, and many are at risk for alcohol abuse. They also revealed higher rates of PTSD and depression.
In post-deployment surveys, women reported fewer instances of traumatic brain injury and blast exposure than men. In contrast, they reported the same percentage of assault and injury. This may indicate that the reported incidents were not all related to conflict with enemy forces, said Rachel Sayko Adams, a scientist at the Institute for Behavioral Health at the University of South Carolina.
Mary Jo Larson, a senior scientist with the Institute for Behavioral Health, noted more female service members report experiences of sexual assault than male service members. She added that sexual assault is a contributing factor for PTSD and alcohol abuse among women.
“There is a need for additional sensitive screening to determine if assaults reported [post-deployment] are related to sexual assault,” Adams said.
“We also found that Army women were less likely than Army men to receive substance use treatment the year before deployment’” Wooten said, “so although 12% of those women and 14% of those men had a substance use diagnosis before they deployed, women were less likely than men to receive treatment.” Current substance use disorder rates among male and female service members returning from deployment are about equal, and both genders under report. But, without more research, it is unclear what factors may put female service members at risk for substance use disorder or PTSD.
“We call it a missed opportunity because we think there should be ways to increase provider recognition that these risks, especially for alcohol, could be associated with other positive screens,” Larson said.
Are you a provider who treats service members with PTSD or substance use disorder? Find clinical resources on the Deployment Health Clinical Center website . If you or someone you know is struggling with PTSD or substance abuse, the DCoE Outreach Center is available 24/7 to answer questions and guide you to helpful resources. Call 866-966-1020, email or live chat.