After the Gulf War ended, Pam Pelle's battle continued.
Pelle, a nurse and Army Reserve staff sergeant with the
Akron-based 2291st Army Hospital, was called for active duty during
the late fall of 1990. For six months, she worked at Walter Reed Army
Medical Center in Washington, nursing returning troops who had severe
orthopedic injuries. Day after day, she tended to soldiers who had
lost arms or legs and listened to their battlefield stories.
After she returned home to Copley, Ohio, Pelle had nightmares and
lost weight. A year later, hours after delivering her first baby, she
started to hallucinate in her room at Akron City Hospital.
"I started screaming," she recalls. "I was under
overhead fire. I could see Scud missiles. Then, one by one, I could
see every amputee I had taken care of during the war."
Shell shock. Combat fatigue. Post-traumatic stress disorder. For
generations, such terms have described the way combat can batter the
psyche and the body. Typically, the image of a troubled veteran was
that of a man. But in the past two decades, an increasing number of
women have put on military uniforms, and many of them now fill combat
roles. Currently, the United States has about 216,000 women on active
duty worldwide, with another 151,000 in the Reserves and National
In the ongoing fighting in Iraq, female soldiers have been killed,
captured and gravely wounded.
Experts have long known that men and women react differently to
stress. For example, women are more at risk for post-traumatic stress
disorder, or PTSD, a debilitating mental health condition that can be
triggered by various life-threatening situations such as assault or
natural disaster, as well as combat.
Now, the Department of Veterans Affairs has launched a $5 million
study to determine what type of psychotherapy works best for women
suffering from PTSD. Continuing through 2005, the study is the
largest ever to focus on psychotherapy for PTSD.
"About 20 to 25 percent of the women who served in the
Vietnam War and the Gulf War developed PTSD," said Paula
Schnurr, deputy executive director of the VA's National Center for
PTSD in White River Junction, Vt., and the study's co-director.
"We'd expect the figures for women serving in Iraq to be at
least as high."
Lucy Bland is a 53-year-old nurse-anesthetist at Cuyahoga Falls
General Hospital in Ohio. She's also a lieutenant colonel in the Army
Reserves who was stationed at Al Asad, Iraq, last fall. Although she
is coping well, since returning home to Cuyahoga Falls in January
after three months' duty, she believes that a great many returning
soldiers will suffer from stress-related problems.
"It's not like there is a front line," Bland said,
"so anyone can be a victim."
And women veterans, she believes, may be especially affected by
"I think women take things more seriously, and are more
intensely feeling," she explains.
Indeed, when it comes to mental health, women and men are put
together differently, said Patricia Resick, a psychologist and
director of the Women's Health Sciences Division in Boston, a
research and education center run by the VA.
Resick and her colleagues study not only PTSD, but other
mental-health problems that veterans can experience after combat.
"Women generally are at higher risk for mood disorders,"
such as depression and anxiety, Resick said. "Men are at higher
risk for substance abuse and aggression."
Experts don't exactly know why men and women react to stress
Consider post-traumatic stress disorder: This condition brings
with it both biological and psychological symptoms, such as sleep
disturbances, anxiety, altered brain-wave activity and relationship
Resick said that by the time a woman reaches adulthood, she is
much more likely to have been a victim of abuse than a man. If a
woman who previously was abused enlists in the military and
experiences more trauma, Resick said, she is more likely to develop
Former Staff Sgt. Janice Bragg of Stow, Ohio, like Pelle, served
as an Army Reserve nurse at Walter Reed during the Gulf War. Her
husband, Paul, a reservist, also was assigned to Washington.
When she was called up, Bragg, then mother of a 7-year-old, had to
sign over custody of her son, Justin, to his grandparents.
Even though she didn't participate in combat, Bragg found it very
difficult to "put her life back together" when she returned
home. Ashamed that she had developed problems when she hadn't even
entered the battle zone, she didn't seek any sort of help from the
"We trained other [reservists]," she said. "How
would I be able to explain my weakness? I couldn't handle something
that I had trained for 10 years for."
Today, nearly 15 years out of the Reserves, Pelle, 40, and Bragg,
43, are engaging women in stable marriages. Best friends, they are
veterans proud to have served their country. Both have had more
But they both insist that the public needs to realize that
veterans who return from active duty during a war need support,
whether that duty was on American soil or in the Iraqi desert.
Pelle said that when she finally told her family doctor about her
nightmares and other problems, he told her that she needed "to
just get over it."
"It was the wrong thing to say to anyone who has come back
from active duty," Pelle said. "Because you know what? It
doesn't work that way.
"You don't just get over it."