Experts Explore How Combat Roles May Affect Women’s Psychological Health

By DCoE Public Affairs

The military is a lot different for women today than it was 20 years ago. More women serve and they serve in many new roles, including combat. Exploring the challenges women service member’s may face and how those challenges may affect their psychological health was the focus of a panel discussion during the 2016 Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury Summit.

Participants from the U.S. defense force and countries in the USSOUTHCOM area of responsibility prepare for a group photo at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Port of Spain June 15. Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Marcie Mascaro

Participants from the U.S. defense force and countries in the USSOUTHCOM area of responsibility prepare for a group photo at the Hyatt Regency hotel in Port of Spain June 15. Air Force photo by 1st Lt. Marcie Mascaro

Expanded Roles for Women in the Military

The history of our nation’s military isn’t complete without women. Since the Revolutionary War, women cared for the wounded and supported a variety of military operations.

The number of female service members started to climb in 1994 when the direct ground combat definition and assignment rule went into effect, said Dr. Tracey Koehlmoos, health services administration division director at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. This definition and rule allowed women to fill more military occupations as long as they weren’t in direct combat.

U.S. Marines and Marine enlistees from 1st Marine Corps District in Garden City, N.Y., demonstrate pull-ups, crunches and ammunition-can lifts outside of the Fox News building in New York City, Aug. 17, 2016. The Marines visited Fox & Friends to demonstrate their commitment to female Marines and to the integration of women into combat military occupational specialties. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Brandon Thomas

U.S. Marines and Marine enlistees from 1st Marine Corps District in Garden City, N.Y., demonstrate pull-ups, crunches and ammunition-can lifts outside of the Fox News building in New York City, Aug. 17, 2016. The Marines visited Fox & Friends to demonstrate their commitment to female Marines and to the integration of women into combat military occupational specialties. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Brandon Thomas

Continued Expansion of Women in the Services

Since 9/11, more than 300,000 women have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. As of August 2016, female service members represent almost 16 percent of the total active-duty force. In today’s service academies, women represent almost 24 percent of students.

Given the increase in the number of women joining the military, understanding their direct needs is a must, Koehlmoos said.

Potential challenges for servicewomen include:

  • Deployment and combat health
  • Reproductive issues
  • Musculoskeletal issues
  • Ostracism
  • Pain perception
  • Sexual assault and harassment
  • Suicide
  • Female wounded warriors

Impact of Ostracism

Deployment Health Clinical Center Deputy Director Dr. Kate McGraw said some female service members may not feel a sense of belonging to their unit or lack strong social support. Ostracism by male peers may have a physical impact on women integrating into previously all-male combat positions, said McGraw, a clinical psychologist and Air Force veteran.

Army Battalion Adjutant 2nd Lt. Kelsey Davis describes the personnel, casualty and replacement portions of a simulated combat scenario during a combined arms rehearsal at Peason Ridge during the Joint Readiness Training Center's 16-04 rotation on Fort Polk, La., Feb. 12, 2016. Army photo by Capt. Richard Packer

Army Battalion Adjutant 2nd Lt. Kelsey Davis describes the personnel, casualty and replacement portions of a simulated combat scenario during a combined arms rehearsal at Peason Ridge during the Joint Readiness Training Center’s 16-04 rotation on Fort Polk, La., Feb. 12, 2016. Army photo by Capt. Richard Packer

McGraw cited a 2004 study with a computer game that used functional MRI to measure brain activity after the computer stopped playing with a participant. According to McGraw, the results showed parts of the brain (the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex) activating in people who felt rejected.

“That’s important because that’s the same area that lights up when a person experiences physical pain,” said McGraw. “Scientists have started to make a connection between the impact of ostracism and the similarities to the body feeling physical pain.”

Ostracism may increase the potential for suicidal thoughts and actions, posttraumatic stress disorder and depression, said Jacqueline Garrick, special assistant to the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. To avoid ostracism, women may try to conceal any health challenge that makes them stand out from others in their unit.

“Just as male counterparts may be hiding posttraumatic stress disorder or depression, women may want to hide anything that will make them seem less strong, less masculine or less capable,” Garrick said.

The road to total inclusion doesn’t end now; acknowledging women’s health concerns is one small step to integrating our force. Further research will help shape policy and meet the needs of all service members.

“We have a responsibility to these young men and women to understand what is happening and make it possible for everyone to serve fully,” Koehlmoos said.

For more information on challenges service women face, check out the following resources:

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