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What Happens When "Jane" Comes Marching Home Again?

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Flickr image By The U.S. Army

It didn't take long for Jenny McClendon, a sonar operator in the Navy, to experience sexual harassment when she joined the military in 1997.   Immediately subjected to verbal attacks by her male counterparts, when she refused sexual advances, she was told she wasn't "tough enough to be in the military." Finally she complained to superiors who said that being harassed was part of training.   An enlisted officer called her "a lesbian, a feminist, and a Democrat" and said she should be thrown overboard.

McClendon's experience is not unusual.   The kind of abuse she describes is widely, and probably under-reported by female veterans. It gets worse. McClendon was raped by a superior while on watch aboard her ship one night.   It was the first of two rapes, or "military sexual trauma" (MST), she suffered while in the service.

When she reported the rape, McClendon was accused of lying and told to "shut up" about the incident.   That's when she "began to lose it and to come apart as a person."   Back in Norfolk, Va., forced to leave her ship and attend anger management counseling, she was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) on the basis of one fifteen minute assessment.   Later, when she asked for a woman therapist, she was told to stop resisting treatment.  

Approximately 15 percent of soldiers and marines serving in America's armed forces are women. More than 282,000 of them have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan during a decade of war.   Twenty percent of the women who've returned home have been identified by the Department of Veteran's Affairs as having experienced   MST, and 80 percent have reported sexual harassment.   Those figures are likely low. In 2011 alone nearly 3200 cases of MST were reported. Experts estimate that given the large number of unreported cases, the number is probably closer to 19,000.

From 2000 to 2010 more than 31,000 veterans were discharged with a diagnosis of "personality disorder." Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine and now executive director of the Service Women's Action Network (SWAN), told CNN that she sees "a pattern of the military using psychiatric diagnoses to get rid of women who report sexual assaults." A diagnosis of BPD, described as a long-standing, inflexible pattern of maladaptive behavior, is considered a pre-existing condition, not a service-related disability.   That means the military can dismiss rather than treat vets.   According to military records obtained by Yale Law School, the diagnosis of personality disorder is used disproportionately on women.

The betrayal is profound, says Mary Ellen Salzano, mother of a Marine and founder of a statewide collaborative for military families in California.   "The first thing you learn in the military is "I don't need help,'" she says. "So when a soldier or Marine asks for help themselves they are revealing a vulnerability that it is hard to acknowledge.   And if they can't trust their own to help them they suffer "institutional trauma.'   They feel crushed."

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Salzano adds that sexuality and spirituality are not discussed during military service or after arriving home.   "So if you come home with no sex drive or a genital injury, post-traumatic stress, or a traumatic brain injury that affects both your sexuality and your capacity for intimacy, who do you turn to for help?"  

Women are particularly confused by expectations on returning home.   "How can you behave lovingly with your kids when you've had to push kids off your Humvee and watch them be run over because they could be the enemy?" Salvano asks rhetorically. "Riddled with guilt and shame, how do you get to the point of forgiving yourself so that you can begin to heal?"

Paula J. Caplan, a research psychologist, addresses many of these issues in her 2011 book, When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home: How All of Us Can Help Veterans.    She points out, for example, that women vets often experience complex states of anxiety "because striving to act in traditionally masculine ways in order to prove they deserve to be in the military can conflict with any wish they have to act in traditionally feminine ways."   

Kari Granger, formerly in the Air Force and now a consultant with Sunergos, a global performance and leadership development firm, understood these issues and wanted to do something to support returning women vets.   With three other former military women, she developed a program called "Leading with Resiliency and Grace" which supports military women as they envision a meaningful future and helps them "bring their full capacity to whatever they are dealing with in the present."

  Other women are also helping returning female vets.   New York filmmakers Marcia Rock and Patricia Stotter produced a multi-platform documentary, Service: When Women Come Marching Home that offers an intimate view of women vets returning home through narratives shared in their own words.   In a legislative attempt to help all vets traumatized by MST, Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-CA) has introduced legislation designed to combat sexual assault in the military.

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"As increasing numbers of women join the military and enter combat zones, the sexism that pervades our entire society helps shape what happens to them," Paula Caplan says. The Department of Veterans Affairs, and the Department of Defense are beginning to realize the extent of this reality and seem poised to take steps to address the complex needs of military women and women veterans.   But much work remains. The bulk of it, it seems, will fall to grassroots women's organizations and individuals who understand the experience of "Janes" who come marching home.

Elayne Clift is a writer,lecturer, workshop leader and activist. She is senior correspondent for Women's Feature Service, columnist for the Keene (NH) Sentinel and Brattleboro (VT) Commons and a contributor to various publications internationally. (more...)

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The men around them should protect them from anybo... by Don Caldarazzo on Monday, Oct 15, 2012 at 2:38:21 PM
Thanks for your compassion, Don. The military obv... by Elayne Clift on Monday, Oct 15, 2012 at 4:46:24 PM
If the men around them (female soldiers), had nobl... by Davey Jones on Tuesday, Oct 16, 2012 at 5:10:40 PM
Try to realize that when you're regular 18 year ol... by Don Caldarazzo on Tuesday, Oct 16, 2012 at 6:41:54 PM
I can't speak to the sexual harrassment but if the... by Ray O. Sunshine on Tuesday, Oct 16, 2012 at 8:48:54 AM
And the rape numbers are KNOWN to be much higher t... by Kim Cassidy on Tuesday, Oct 16, 2012 at 9:46:58 AM
This has to be stopped. Is this the return of "mac... by John Lynch on Tuesday, Oct 16, 2012 at 8:50:52 AM
I have known women who were in the WAAC in the 195... by Mary Pitt on Tuesday, Oct 16, 2012 at 12:29:00 PM
.STOP VOLUNTEERING YOUR LIFE AND LIMB AWAY ON I... by MadAngel on Tuesday, Oct 16, 2012 at 9:10:48 AM
 to understand that morality  in the arm... by Mark Sashine on Tuesday, Oct 16, 2012 at 10:13:19 AM
How can anybody possibly expect active duty males ... by Chris Robinett on Tuesday, Oct 16, 2012 at 12:30:02 PM
The US gov't does not care as long as she keeps dy... by Lorring II on Tuesday, Oct 16, 2012 at 12:34:23 PM
Active duty males won't protect or defend their fe... by Chris Robinett on Tuesday, Oct 16, 2012 at 12:43:43 PM
I appreciate the many postings on this piece and a... by Elayne Clift on Tuesday, Oct 16, 2012 at 1:30:24 PM
Why don't women have more sense than to join up?Wo... by Paul Craig Roberts on Tuesday, Oct 16, 2012 at 5:58:06 PM
that I have heard since I was a little girl, and t... by Mary Pitt on Tuesday, Oct 16, 2012 at 6:44:19 PM
a good point in the article though, about these wo... by Don Caldarazzo on Tuesday, Oct 16, 2012 at 6:58:06 PM
The sad part is that no one is doing a damn thing ... by Lester Shepherd on Tuesday, Oct 16, 2012 at 9:26:01 PM
This country has contractual  volunteer armed... by Mark Sashine on Tuesday, Oct 16, 2012 at 7:03:02 PM
I am not saying that I agree with Mr. Roberts, or ... by Don Caldarazzo on Tuesday, Oct 16, 2012 at 7:12:39 PM
I do not like Israelis  much but they have&nb... by Mark Sashine on Tuesday, Oct 16, 2012 at 7:29:53 PM
click here... by Mark Sashine on Tuesday, Oct 16, 2012 at 7:51:48 PM
This is just another glaring example of what happe... by Don Caldarazzo on Tuesday, Oct 16, 2012 at 8:30:39 PM
Enlisting in the armed forces is for precisely the... by Mary Pitt on Tuesday, Oct 16, 2012 at 7:42:59 PM
You can't talk about lofty human vlaues, nor even ... by Muhammad Abbass Pallister on Wednesday, Oct 17, 2012 at 4:06:43 AM
I cannot fathom how the hell any woman would vote ... by Lester Shepherd on Tuesday, Oct 16, 2012 at 9:18:57 PM
>>"If we do not have the ability to rear our... by Paul Repstock on Tuesday, Oct 16, 2012 at 9:57:09 PM
The military is no place for women, and that will ... by Muhammad Abbass Pallister on Wednesday, Oct 17, 2012 at 3:58:26 AM
as much as anybody, so toss that aside.  When... by Mary Pitt on Wednesday, Oct 17, 2012 at 8:26:05 AM
I am amazed at the amount of discussion this piece... by Elayne Clift on Wednesday, Oct 17, 2012 at 12:47:22 PM
I can only speak for myself, but I  woul... by Ray O. Sunshine on Wednesday, Oct 17, 2012 at 1:58:48 PM