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Female Veterans Breaking Silence, Beating Trauma

Lisa Bolling accepts the "Challenge Coin" from Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis at Arlington National Cemetery's Women in Military Service for America Memorial on July 20. The secretary shared Bolling's story of being a homeless female veteran at the launch of a new trauma guide for women. (Courtesy Of The Department Of Labor)

During a military mission in Afghanistan this weekend, a U.S. helicopter came under fire, crashing and killing eight Afghans and 30 U.S. servicemen. Twenty-two of the casualties were Navy SEALs.

Families are still trying to process the weekend's loss and deal with mental and emotional fallout from the nation's wars. And women have it particularly tough.

Significantly more women have served in the U.S. military in recent years, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Many of these women suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and other issues after their service ends.

U.S. Air Force veteran Lisa Bolling has survived military trauma, returned to a home on the streets, and is now coping with PTSD.

In an interview with Tell Me More guest host Allison Keyes, Bolling says that she first served at the Air Force base in Florida for two years, which was a wonderful experience.

But she wanted to see the world and thus got sent to Germany. She says she was assaulted by a male service member one month after arriving at the base in Germany.

"And six months later, I was pushed out of the military. I got eight letters of reprimand and two Article 15s because I didn't want to go back on the base. And I didn't feel like I could tell anyone. It was a tactical unit. It was very cold — strictly business," she explains.

Bolling says she spent one year trying to put herself back together, but eventually began taking drugs to ease the pain and soon became homeless.

"And I decided one day, I didn't want to die like that, and so I went to Narcotics Anonymous. I've been clean for 19 years," she says.

Bolling went on to earn a degree in paralegal studies and became a therapeutic foster parent.

"One of my foster daughters got cancer at 17 and died at 18. From that point on, I couldn't function. I lost my house. I lost a car. And I knew I had some issues with depression, but I didn't know what was happening to me ... where it would snatch my whole life away," says Bolling.

How often do cases like Bolling's occur?

Dr. Sonja Batten, a psychologist who works on national mental health policy for the Department of Veterans Affairs, says 22 percent of female veterans who seek care from VA report having experienced sexual trauma in the military. By contrast, a little over 1 percent of male veterans experience sexual trauma.

Batten also points out that the Department of Defense is responsible for those on active military duty; the VA is a separate governmental branch that cares for veterans after service.

She emphasizes that the VA helps veterans recognize that they are now in a safer place. She adds that women have unique stressors clinicians should keep in mind, including child care.

"So if they're feeling stressed about that, we really need to listen to them when they're talking about those challenges so we can provide them support," she says.

But Bolling believes male and female veterans deal with stress similarly.

"Post-traumatic stress is a strange disease in that it has the same blueprint for everybody. The vets are fearful. Many of them can barely get out of the bed. Many have lost their jobs, or [are] in a position where they're being suspended because they're missing work, and their boss doesn't understand why," says Bolling.

Bolling has actively helped other veterans. She encourages them to report trauma immediately, and she refers them to VA facilities she finds helpful, such as Bay Pines in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Batten says she wholeheartedly agrees with Bolling that veterans who need help should ask for it immediately.

She adds that since 2005, the VA has been working to expand its ability to provide effective mental health services. She says the VA trains providers, making sure they are skilled in the latest treatments. It also reaches out to those who may not know what services they're eligible for or what services are available.

Most recently, the VA launched a smartphone application called The PTSD Coach, which offers reliable PTSD information and coping strategies. And there's a 24-hour crisis hotline for those in need of immediate assistance.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ALLISON KEYES, host: This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, can your online shenanigans cost you your next job? The Social Intelligence Corporation looks through seven years of your public Web history and reports back to perspective employers. That's in a few minutes.

But first, we turn to a more private affair - the sometimes-hidden struggles of women veterans. The Department of Veterans Affairs just announced that it's awarding nearly $60 million in grants to help homeless and at-risk veterans and their families. And not only are women veterans four times more likely to be homeless than male veterans, they also have to deal with issues ranging from sex abuse in the military to post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

Here to talk about why female veterans are under so much stress is clinical psychologist Dr. Sonja Batten, who works on national mental health policy for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Also joining us to share her personal story is Air Force veteran Lisa Bolling. She says she encountered sexual abuse while serving in Europe. When she returned, she was homeless for a while. And now, she's living with PTSD. But last month Bolling received a medal from the secretary of Labor, and she's been getting her life back on track. Ladies, welcome to the program.

LISA BOLLING: Thank you.

Dr. SONJA BATTEN: Thanks for having us.

KEYES: Lisa, you were in the Air Force for two and a half years, and everything was going pretty well until you got to Germany. Tell us what happened.

BOLLING: First, I was at Homestead Air Force Base in Florida. I was there for two years. It was really a wonderful base, and it was a wonderful experience. I wanted to see the world, so I put in for Germany. I got to Germany in January. I was assaulted in February.

And six months later, I was pushed out of the military. I got like, eight letter of reprimands and two article 15s because I didn't want to go back on the base, and I didn't feel like I could tell anyone. I had just gotten there. I'd only been there 30 days. It was a tactical unit, which is very cold. You know, it's strictly business. And many of my write-ups were for AWOL because I felt that I should have been safe...

KEYES: Did he or she continue to work with you?

BOLLING: They didn't work with me. I'd still see them on the base - and just walk past me like, you know, very nonchalant. And I was like, oh my God, I can't do this anymore. I got to get out of this place. I kind of tried to get myself together for a year, and I ended up getting on drugs. And I was on the streets for years, you know, and I decided...

KEYES: When you say on the streets, you were homeless.

BOLLING: I was homeless. And I decided one day that I didn't want to die like that. And so I went to Narcotics Anonymous. I've actually been clean for 19 years. So I got clean. I went to college. I got an associate's degree in paralegal studies, became a therapeutic foster parent. And what happened to me would come up, but I'd stuff it because I said if I stuff this, it didn't happen. And so I stuffed it, and I stuffed it successfully.

One of my foster daughters got cancer at 17, and died at 18. From that point on, I kind of couldn't function. I lost my house. I lost a car. And you know, I knew I had some issues with depression, but I didn't know what was happening to me, where it would snatch my whole life away.

KEYES: Dr. Batten, let me ask you how prevalent is this kind of thing for women veterans - or for women in the service, I should say?

BATTEN: We routinely screen all of our male and female veterans when they come in for care in VA, to ask them whether they had an experience of sexual trauma when they were in the military. And the rates that we find are about 22 percent of our women veterans who seek care in VA report that they had an experience of sexual trauma in the military. And a little over 1 percent of our male veterans report that they experienced sexual trauma.

KEYES: But like Ms. Bolling said, if a woman has been assaulted and doesn't feel that she can come to the military for help because it's a place that scares her and is a place of pain for her, then how do you get to women who might need that help?

BATTEN: Well, so this is an important point for education to help, actually, veterans and the general public understand that the military is when somebody's in active duty. So the Department of Defense is who takes care of them when they're on active duty. The Department of Veterans Affairs is actually a separate department of the government, and it's our job to take care of veterans after they have served in the military. And so we actually are there just for them. We're not part of the organization that they were a part of when this might have happened, and helping them recognize that they're in a safer place now.

KEYES: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're talking about the incredible stresses that some women veterans have faced. both in service and when they return to civilian life. Our guests are U.S. Air Force veteran Lisa Bolling and clinical psychologist Dr. Sonja Batten.

Ms. Bolling, I wonder, have you spoken to other servicewomen that have been through what you've been through? What advice were you able to offer them - or were you able to offer them anything?

BOLLING: Yes, I've spoken to lots of women veterans. And I tell them the mistake I made was that I should have reported it. And if you're a woman vet that hasn't reported it, there's still help for you. And I try to put them in the position where they can prevent themselves from destructive behavior, where they can go to a therapist or they can go away to places, wonderful places like Bay Pines.

KEYES: Bay Pines?

BOLLING: Bay Pines is a VA facility in Saint Petersburg, Florida. They have a CSTS program, which is for post-traumatic stress disorder and military sexual trauma. And it helped me, and it seemed to help quite a few others.

KEYES: Dr. Batten, I'm curious - is dealing with the increasing number of women veterans something that the Department of Veterans Affairs is kind of learning as it goes? I know the numbers have been increasing a lot. As of 2008, 11 percent of the veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq military operations were women. So what specific things are women veterans dealing with that male veterans don't run into as much?

BATTEN: One of the things that we know is that for - just women in the general public, social support is really important to us. And that's true for women veterans as well. And so we find that whether or not people had the support they needed before they deployed, while they were deployed and afterwards, that's a really key aspect.

We also realized that in their current lives, they have somewhat unique stressors that our clinicians need to be paying close attention to. So they may be more likely to have the stress of child care. And when they have problems paying the bills, it affects not just them but also their children. And so if they're feeling stressed about that, we need to really listen to them when they're talking about those challenges that they're going through, so that we can provide them support.

KEYES: Ms. Bolling, you've talked to servicemen obviously, male and female. Are you hearing that people are dealing with the stress and post-traumatic stress pretty equally, or is it more difficult for women that you've spoken to?

BOLLING: I think that it's equal as far as men and women, the way they deal with it because post-traumatic stress disorder is - it's a strange disease in that it has the same blueprint for everybody. The vets are fearful. Many of them can barely get out of the bed. Many have lost their jobs or in a position where they're being suspended because they're missing work and their boss doesn't seem to understand why. And today is a bad day for me because today, I am severely depressed. Severely, severely. I came because I said I was going to come, so I came.

KEYES: Dr. Batten, what specifically is the government doing to help both women like Ms. Bolling, and the men that are going through similar symptoms? And what do you suggest that people do that haven't reached out already?

BATTEN: Yeah. I think the point that Ms. Bolling makes that is so key, is that you need to ask for help. And you need to be willing to acknowledge maybe if you're feeling stuck because the sooner you reach out for help, the sooner you're going to be able to get your life back on track.

I think that's one of the really important messages. And we in VA, we've been really, since - actually, since 2005 have been working on significantly expanding our ability to provide effective mental health services. We've been doing training with our providers, to make sure that they are skilled in the most effective treatments possible.

KEYES: And you've actually been proactively calling women veterans as well, to try to help as they come back from service.

BATTEN: It's also important for us to do outreach and make sure that we're reaching out to those people who may not know what services they're eligible for, may not realize what we have to offer - and make sure that they're coming in for the cure that they've earned by their service.

KEYES: Ms. Bolling, in the brief time that we have left, I'm curious as to whether you could share with us some of the things that you do to help make yourself feel better. I hear you have a dog.

BOLLING: I have a miniature Doberman who is so affectionate. And it's good because I have to walk him. So I have to come out the house at least twice a day. Lots of candlelight baths. And I have a good support system. I have friends who love me and I have a girlfriend who has post-traumatic stress disorder, too. And so normally if I'm having an off day, she's having a good day, you know. So we're able to support each other.

Unidentified Woman: Couple times we've both had off days, and that's not good.

BOLLING: Yeah. So that's what I do.

KEYES: But you're making it.

BOLLING: And therapy, lots and lots of therapy.

KEYES: Because you're sitting right here.

BOLLING: Yes.

KEYES: So you're making it. Dr. Batten, really briefly, besides asking people to reach out for help sooner, what are some of the other things that veterans like Ms. Bolling can do to help manage their PTSD on their own?

BATTEN: Well, I think that Ms. Bolling gives a lot of good examples - finding those thing that help you get through those difficult moments. And that's different for everybody. At VA, we also just launched a free smartphone application, called the PTSD Coach, that anyone with an iPhone or a Droid phone can download for free that provides good, reliable information about PTSD and teaches some of those coping skills to help people get through the moment.

Because we know that even if you come in for therapy, that might be one or two hours a week. What people need is also something, you know, in the middle of the night when you need help getting through that moment.

BOLLING: Nightmare.

BATTEN: Yeah.

KEYES: Is there a phone number that they can call as well? I mean, if you don't have the resources for a smartphone or something?

BATTEN: Yeah, absolutely. So our Veterans Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day. It's staffed by VA professionals, and it's 1-800-273-TALK, or 273-8255. And all people have to do is press 1, and they'll talk to somebody day or night who's trained and works with veterans, and can link them up with resources that are close to them.

KEYES: All right. I'm sorry, ladies, we've got to leave it there. Lisa Bolling is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force. Now she is an advocate for other vets who are suffering from PTSD, trauma in the military and homelessness. Dr. Sonja Batten is a clinical psychologist with the Department of Veterans Affairs. They were both kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you both.

BATTEN: Thank you so much.

BOLLING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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