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Combat Stress: Women as Resilient as Men

BU study first of its kind

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These women Marines in Afghanistan were assigned to assist women and children in 2010. Photo by Flickr/United States Marine Corps (Cpl. Marionne T. Mangrum)

War is hell, but women soldiers may be no more vulnerable than men to its stresses. That’s the surprising conclusion of a study led by the School of Medicine of veterans returning from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

The researchers say their findings differ from broader studies suggesting females have a heightened vulnerability to trauma. They surveyed 340 women and 252 men who had returned from deployment within the previous year, quizzing them about any symptoms of depression, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other mental health impairment.

“While women are still officially barred from direct ground combat positions in the U.S. military, they serve in a variety of positions that put them at risk for combat exposure,” the researchers write in their paper, which currently appears online in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. “Women’s risk for combat is compounded by the enemy’s increased use of guerrilla warfare tactics in recent wars. As of 2009, more than 750 women had been wounded or killed in action” during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, which includes the Afghanistan war and some other anti-terrorism efforts.

Previous research has looked at the effects of “all types of potentially traumatic events” on women, such as sexual assault and car accidents, says study lead author Dawne Vogt, a MED associate professor of psychiatry and a researcher at the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in the VA Boston Healthcare System. In such noncombat traumas, Vogt says, “there’s kind of this consistent finding that women are worse off” than men. Yet her study found no such disparity in trauma from combat.

She and her colleagues cite speculation by others that the threat from combat is so persistent and overwhelming that it affects both genders equally. Women soldiers also have received improved training in recent years, according to the study.

“Regardless of the cause,” the study concludes, “these findings have substantial implications for military policy, as they call into question the commonly held belief that women may be more vulnerable to the negative effects of combat exposure than men.” A congressionally created commission has recommended ending the ban on women in combat.

The study asked subjects about other stressors besides combat exposure: postbattle experiences such as handling human remains, fear for one’s safety and other pressures from living in a war zone, sexual harassment or assault during deployment, and predeployment exposure to stress. While the women reported slightly less exposure to most combat-related stressors, they recounted greater exposure to sexual harassment and predeployment stress.

Conceding several uncertainties in their work, the researchers suggest follow-up studies. Postdeployment symptoms may increase over time, they write, and future surveys should include vets who are more than a year out from returning from deployment. Vogt says she will follow up on the study with data she expects to collect on the mental health of veterans two to three years after their deployment ends.

The researchers write that they’re unaware of any similar study measuring combat stress effects between men and women. Among the study coauthors are School of Public Health researchers Mark Glickman, Susan Eisen, Rani Elway, and Mari-Lynn Drainoni.

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

7 Comments

7 Comments on Combat Stress: Women as Resilient as Men

  • Anonymous on 06.16.2011 at 11:40 am

    But they’re comparing men who were in combat to women who had non-combat occupations with risk of combat exposure, right? So shouldn’t the women have lower stress levels if stress-resiliance is non-gender-specific?

  • Bryan Jiencke on 06.16.2011 at 2:45 pm

    Treatment of WMs (Women Marines)

    In my opinion, there’s a complete double standard between the treatment of men and women in the Marines on two levels. Among individuals, women are looked down on and seen as second rate service members. From the standpoint of the organization, women are given higher privileges and greater opportunities for promotion because of the weariness of appearing sexist.

    It doesn’t matter if you have 8 purple hearts, 3 medals of honor, and 5 bronze stars with V for valor — if you’re a male Marine going up against a female who has been on active duty 6 months, you’ll lose on a promotion board. In my opinion, treatment of WMs should be one of the many lessons we take out of the Global War on Terrorism. Although WMs are only assigned to non-combat roles that typically keep them behind the wire, the unpredictability of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan saw more women in harm’s way than wars of the past. Also, the Lioness program was born out of the need to use WMs to search female non-combatants and it tested the Pentagon’s policy of prohibiting females from combat roles. In the same way that women have made steps towards equality in the business world, the military will do the same in time. Throw them in the infantry! If they are given the opportunity to pay equal dues, individual male Marines will stop coining them nicknames that are too grotesque to mention here. The military has historically and notoriously been resistant to change. In my opinion, if the organization worked to eliminate these double standards with the treatment of WMs — sexism would also be worn down on the individual level and they would actually be viewed as equals.

    Imposing social change on the military during a time of war flies in the face of common sense. However, with Iraq winding down and Afghanistan in question — I believe that the conclusion of the GWOT will be the appropriate time to look at such changes, along with other aspects of the way this country views its military. Seeing as next month was our original withdrawal deadline for the indefinite conflict (war) and with our friends on “fair and balanced” Fox News even starting to question our continued large scale presence there, as well as a few other reasons, I don’t believe the war will continue much longer.

    • Alicia on 11.30.2011 at 4:12 pm

      I refuse to participate in biased survey’s that have ill intent against females in the military. Professionals conduct “studies” but their results can not be completly valid as in any study done with the concern to psychological aspects. Females will continue to be defenseless against double standards until the outdated myths and stereotypes are forfeited to logic and reason. Until the standards are even across the board and until females are allowed the equal oppotunity to prove their physical and mental worth to perform and serve their beloved country. Until than all these survery’s are on a band wagon with the rest of the closed minded geezers. Only a few of my brother’s know the ability I posses as a female Marine. And I would blow these traditional arguments out of the water. 1994 the ban was created and it’s time we amend the policy and allow females into combat positions. But none of this is worth the effort unless my sisters can keep their legs closed and remain professional with relations to our brother’s in arms.

    • Kathy on 12.13.2011 at 9:25 am

      If a man with, what 8 purple hearts, 3 medals of honor, 7.5 bronze stars in the Marines, loses a promotion to a woman whose been there 6 months, wow, that must be one hell of a woman. Definitely, she should get the promotion. However, I’ll believe that when I see it. You sound like a man who is scared of women.

  • Anonymous on 06.16.2011 at 8:32 pm

    That is extremely ridiculous for you to think that a female on active duty for 6 months would out beat someone with so many decorated awards. That alone tells me how biased you are and that you are exactly the type of Marine that I love to encounter. Even more so the fact that you named your response WM and tried to compensate it and say “Women Marine” when we both know what phrase you probably really use.
    If there is any double standard, it is one that other Male Marines that let that standard occur. That double standard comes from the male Marine to the left and right of you, if you want that “special treatment” trust you me they are not getting it from the other female Marines. If anything we are harder on each other than anyone else can possibly be.
    When I got to Afghanistan last year I was in charge of 60+ Male Marines, the Senior Sergeant of the Platoon and nothing in the deployment was more stressful then the sexual harassment and the pre-deployment work up knowing I had to leave my child behind.
    Everything else was just work, we left the wire all the time obviously i’m not going to post how often but re-supply is extremly demanding and I’m a Marine just like the rest of my peers, I went there to complete a mission, and I did and didn’t even care whether I received an award or not as long as I knew my Marines were taken care of.

  • Bryan Jiencke on 06.17.2011 at 3:45 pm

    Learn how to interpret sarcasm

    The acronym "WM" is used commonly — it’s not meant to be derogatory.

    I’m being sarcastic. We don’t even have people with 3 medals of honor — I’m exaggerating. Women have a clear advantage over men on promotion boards and there are similar double standards across the organization.

    I’m trying to say that women should be allowed in the infantry and should be handled the same as male Marines. In my opinion, this would help break down a lot of the sexism that we’re both aware exists on the individual level. From my perspective, these double standards are much of the reason that so many male Marines look down on females, and females in turn feel they have to get defensive about it. I’m not sexist — I’m a realist. A lot of the best Marines I worked with were females.

  • Anonymous on 06.18.2011 at 4:09 pm

    You didn’t read my entire message. First point — WM is a commonly used acronym and it is not derogatory.

    In the same way that we look back with amazement on segregation between races in the military, I believe that future generations will look back on us in amazement that we actually segregated between genders. To my knowledge, the two major reasons for such separation is that women are “not as physically strong as men” and that women are not equipped to deal with the psychological trauma of combat. As for the physical argument, some women are stronger than some men so there is a contradiction. How do you differentiate? You don’t — you throw everyone in together. As for susceptibility to trauma — I don’t buy it. For a country that prides itself on liberty and equality, we don’t seem to have much of an understanding as to the definition of either.

    In my opinion, the real cause for such segregation is the massive ego complex that is so prevalent in our military, especially in the infantry. In the same way that they look down on WMs, I was viewed as less of a Marine for being a “dumb POG”. It may not be politically correct to say it, but I think that the thought going through their heads is this: “Girls? Not in my infantry! We’re too tough!” Allowing women in the infantry goes against the macho bravado attitude that defines combat related fields. One way or another, our military will make steps towards equality just as we have seen in the work place. Even once such policies are implemented, I think it will take a decade or 2 before we see a real change in attitude towards WMs. This is one of the many things that I believe we will take out of the GWOT, as well as other ways this country views its military (ie. a War Powers Act that actually does something).

    Also — I’m sticking by my assertion that there is a double standard in the organization’s handling of men and women because of the weariness of appearing sexist. Despite what the modern and “enlightened” method of thinking might tell you, I don’t see anything wrong with being born a white male and I don’t understand the reasoning behind the idea that furthering racism/sexism (equal opportunity initiatives) somehow corrects it.

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