One of the Guys
By Sherri Williams
News21 / Syracuse University
Shannon Williams joined the U.S. Army so it would be a passport out of her small town and its five-screen movie theatre, Wal-Mart and Pizza Hut.
About half of the 40 girls who attended Okanogan High with her ended up pregnant while they were still in school or shortly after they got out, and they were tied to men and jobs that stifled their potential, Williams said.
She didn’t want that for herself.
The Army exposed her to the world, including two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. Her military service, she said, was to be a way to provide for her mother and sister and a way to protect them.
“I did it for my family so every time they saw a flag, whether I came home or not, they would be proud of what that flag stood for,” Williams, 30, said of her almost eight years in the Army.
But now Williams’ way out of Omak, Wash., has led her right back, lured by a desire to be closer to family. And her “escape” has left her dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder, arthritis in her knees, frequent migraines and a failed military marriage.
Williams is working as an assistant manager at a Dollar Tree store in Omak and earning $10.50 an hour, with little room for advancement.
FOR WOMEN, SOMETIMES A PROBLEM
Hours spent working on her feet sometimes leaves Williams’ knees and back aching. She would like to get care at the Veterans Administration for complete health-care services more often. But the VA hospital is three hours away in Spokane, Wash. and she said she sometimes has to wait months to see a physician who specializes in women’s health.
Now that women are the fastest growing demographic of veterans, agencies designed to help those in the service are being challenged to meet their unique needs.
More than 212,000 women have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and almost 130 have died, according to Defense Department statistics.
Women returning from war are accessing veterans’ benefits, especially health care, more than their predecessors who served in the military. Forty-four percent of eligible women from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are being served at VA hospitals, according to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Association.
Typically the women seen at VA hospitals after other wars have been older. They served during WWII and Vietnam, and were treated for gender-neutral ailments, said Dr. Laura Herrera, director of Comprehensive Women’s Health at the VA.
“The VA has been a heath-care system that has predominately served men,” Herrera said. “All of the services were not geared toward women and certainly not women of reproductive age. …We are transforming the culture to be more inclusive of women veterans.”
Every VA hospital is now required to have a program manager for women veterans. Physicians are being trained in women’s health. Gender-specific primary care is being developed to incorporate mental health and efforts are being made to have all of a woman’s health care provided by one physician at the same site.
Such efforts help women veterans receive more complete health care, said Lory Manning, a retired U.S. Navy captain and director of the Women in the Military Project at the Women’s Research and Education Institute.
“Women may be able to get a standard physical (at the VA) but have to get the mammogram or pap smear on different days” or at different sites away from VA hospitals, she said. “That’s sometimes a problem.”
The VA is striving to have comprehensive health care for women so doctors can have a complete picture of a patient’s health, said Julie Liss, women veterans program manager at the VA hospital in Spokane.
“Women vets bring everything to the table, from menopause to childbearing,” said Liss, who is also a registered nurse. “It’s not simply about a pap smear or a mammogram.”
The Spokane VA hospital serves more than 1,420 women veterans, Liss said, but it has just one physician who specializes in women’s health and one nurse practitioner.
In rural towns like Williams’, with a population of more than 4,700, obtaining health care is a hurdle for veterans.
A new partnership between the Washington state VA and local hospitals soon will allow veterans to be treated locally. The VA is also working to improve communication with health-care providers by using technology, including Web chats, to connect patients with physicians, Herrera said.
I’M MAD, EVEN NOW
Williams’ military health-related problems are more than physical. She suffers from PTSD, and said she got into arguments with strangers at local bars when she first returned home.
“I’m mad, even now,” she said. “It takes extreme concentration for me to not get mad over stupid stuff.”
Her daily duties in Iraq also still haunt her. She guarded the gate at an Army airfield compound in Mosul where Army personnel also treated civilians. Iraqi parents often crowded the gate desperately seeking information about their hospitalized children.
“I would have eyes full of tears,” Williams said. “I’d have to tell them, ‘You have to back up or I’m going to have to shoot you.’ That’s what haunts me, the people that I couldn’t help. The families that lost their children.”
Williams sought treatment for PTSD and other emotional issues when she returned. But she said an apathetic counselor turned her off by telling her to “get over it.”
“If I could forget about it I wouldn’t dream about it every night,” Williams said of her deployments.
Williams wants to talk to her family but she doesn’t want to weigh them down with her worries. “It’s really hard to find people who understand,” she said with her eyes filling with tears. “It’s frustrating.”
She’s had two miscarriages that she attributes to her military service. She started having an abnormal menstrual flow after being inoculated with the required anthrax vaccine given to troops before deployments. She believes the shots contributed to her miscarriages.
VA medical experts would not comment on the anthrax vaccine and its impact on women’s reproductive health.
Williams, who imagined she would be a mother by now, is also divorced from her first husband, whom she met in the military. She is estranged from her second husband, a former serviceman.
Women in the Marines and Army had a divorce rate that was three times higher than male troops in 2008, according to Defense Department data.
Higher divorce rates among military women may be attributed to the number of couples where both spouses are in the military and spend a lot of time away from one another, and civilian husbands may struggle with long separations more than women, Manning said.
Even though Williams has had many stresses because of the military, she still misses the camaraderie and her friends.
She is proud of her service and wishes she could have done more in the Army. She wanted to serve in the infantry. Williams said she spent most of her time in the service as a cook and a few months as a gate guard.
“I wanted to show that women were just as good as anybody,” Williams said. “I may not have seen the same thing but we all chewed the same dirt.”
Williams said men didn’t make things easy; male colleagues sometimes made inappropriate sexual remarks.
“I never took it in,” Williams said, noting that she couldn’t recall specific remarks. “I let it roll off my back because I had to. But it was something that happened daily.”
Williams said she was able to handle the comments that came her way. But other women face harassment that was much deeper.
Almost 15 percent of the women veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who have sought services at the VA have reported military sexual trauma, according to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Association.
Among veterans who sought VA services in 2009, almost 22 percent of women, compared to 1 percent of men, reported military sexual trauma, according to VA data.
Military sexual trauma is both sexual harassment and sexual assault that happens in a military atmosphere.
Manning said the military is recognizing military sexual trauma more but a historic reluctance to deal with it and record it makes it hard to tell if the military is safer for women, Manning said.
“Nobody knows what was going on 25 to 30 years ago,” she said. “Most people suspect it is getting easier to report, easier to stop. There is nothing to compare it to.”
WOMEN HAD TO WATCH THEMSELVES
Sheri Fournie, another woman veteran who lives in rural Washington state, said when she was in the Navy, from 1974 to 1976, women entered the service to protect the country, but no one protected them inside the military.
“In my day things were understood. Women knew they had to watch themselves,” said Fournie, 53, who lives near Omak. “Men were coming back from a war they didn’t want to be in. … I think they took it out on everyone around them. We had a lot of angry young men then like now.”
Fournie said she served in a hostile environment where she was sexually harassed and assaulted. When she told a supervisor she wanted to work toward a promotion he implied she could advance by performing sexual favors. One person attempted to assault her while she slept. Fournie believed her superiors were indifferent to a separate attack so she never reported it.
But the experience crippled her for decades. Fournie just started seeing a counselor this year.
Meanwhile, Williams is considering schools to attend to become a trained counselor so that she can help provide the assistance that she and other women veterans need.
“I just wish there were more resources for women because they’re really not (here),” she said.