When Female Veterans Return Home
October 29, 2018
While civilian and military men commit suicide at higher rates than their female counterparts, according to a 2016 VA report, in 2014, the difference between soldiers and civilians was greater for women in all age groups. For young women it is particularly alarming: In 2014, female veterans between 18 and 29 years old killed themselves at six times the rate of civilian women of the same age. Researchers don’t know exactly why so many female veterans are committing suicide, but they have found that survivors of military sexual trauma have a higher rate of suicide than others, and about 20 percent of female soldiers have been victims of such abuse, according to the VA. The study also found that female veterans were more likely than civilian women to kill themselves using a firearm—the most lethal method of suicide.
More than 380,000 women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and about 1 in 5 of them return with post-traumatic stress disorder. One unorthodox veterans’ retreat is teaching female soldiers that war has not broken them. In fact, their anguish may be key to their transformation.
First Lieutenant Brie Zeiger tried to stifle her fear as the C-130 transport plane she was riding in began its descent toward Forward Operating Base Salerno in a hostile region of Afghanistan. The base was attacked so often that the soldiers nicknamed it “Rocket City.” Just three months earlier, in June 2012, insurgents had detonated a truck bomb and invaded the base, killing two Americans. As the plane approached the runway, Zeiger heard an odd sound, like pellets smacking a metal target at a fairground shooting game. This was normal, the crew told her, just incoming fire from the Taliban.
Zeiger, then 26, was a nurse in a small surgical unit there. At night, the faintest whir of helicopter blades would jolt her from bed; wounded were on the way. She loved the challenge of the work, the rush of making life-or-death decisions. “I felt like I was doing exactly what I was meant to do,” she says. But in time, she was numbed by the relentless stream of injured soldiers. One soldier arrived riddled with shrapnel from an improvised explosive device. The medical team tried to keep him alive by pumping air in and out of his lungs. Zeiger remembers looking into his eyes, digging through his bloody clothes to find his dog tags, then watching the 23-year-old pass away. “There is something about seeing a soldier die that changes you,” she says.
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