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Female Vets Navigate Post-War Stress, Home Duties

The Department of Veterans Affairs has sought to improve the care its hospitals offer to female veterans. In this file photo, a woman sits in a waiting room at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Martinsburg, W. Va. (AP)

The first in a series about the challenges female veterans face as they transition to civilian life.

America's female veteran population has grown to an estimated 1.9 million, and the Department of Veterans Affairs projects 50,000 more servicewomen will join that population in the next five years. When they return, many will pick up where they left off, as mothers, wives and caretakers.

In Philadelphia, some female veterans are dealing with family responsibilities while still struggling to cope with the lingering effects of war.

Louise Hawthorne, a veteran of the first Gulf War over a decade ago, gets treatment at the Philadelphia Veteran's Affairs Hospital. She was a chemical operations specialist, dealing regularly with radioactive material and biological weapons. She suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, along with a number of health complications she feels are related to her exposure.

"I've had several miscarriages. I've had a couple of strokes," she says. "I was also gang-raped in the military four separate times, none of which have been prosecuted."

Hawthorne alleges that she tried to report the rapes to superiors but was rebuffed. She is part of a growing class-action lawsuit filed in federal district court in Virginia on behalf of active-duty and veteran victims of sexual trauma.

Back then, Hawthorne says, she felt helpless. She tried to just get over it and do her job.

"We have basically trained ourselves to act like, 'That didn't hurt,' roll with the punches," she says. "And so when we come back and we have PTSD, flashbacks, things like that, we deny it more than men do. Because we're saying, 'Aw, well, she's just emotional.' "

After she returned home, Hawthorne tried to keep her symptoms at bay. She finally had a baby with her husband, but then their marriage fell apart. And Hawthorne got sicker.

"When I did start coming back and forth to the VA hospital, I would often blow off appointments because I had to take care of my daughter," she says.

The Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Hospital doesn't have child care. And for Hawthorne, missing appointments, coupled with self-medication, was a recipe for disaster.

"I remember one instance when I had laid down," Hawthorne says, "and she couldn't have been older than 5. And I'd taken my medicine, and I was out cold. And I woke up to these little baby hands trying to do CPR."

It's the kind of thing Marsha Four has seen before. She's the executive director of the Philadelphia Veterans Multi-Service and Education Center.

"When you're suffering from this kind of pain, it bleeds over," Four says. "It becomes part of everything that you do."

Four speaks from experience: She's a Vietnam veteran. And she says the transition from serving in the military to being a caretaker isn't always easy.

"You know, if there's issues or problems, we'll deal with them later," she says. "We have to get to the ballgame. Or we have to get to the grocery store. Or so many other things take precedence over our own health."

Four says the VA is working hard to provide better services for women. And things have improved. There's better obstetrics and gynecological care, and some VA hospitals are opening child-care centers.

But, Four says, there's nothing like just talking with other female vets.

"They are your sister-in-arms," she says. "They understand you, they understand where you came from."

That rings true for Alfeia DeVaughn Goodwin, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"I was very fortunate because I had that," she says. "I had someone I could just call and say, 'What do I do?' "

When Goodwin returned to the United States, she had three kids, a house that burned down, and a new career as a police officer.

She recently founded Green to Blue, a group for veterans who are becoming police officers. Each morning, she sends out dozens of encouraging text messages to others in the group.

"If you need a ride to drill, or if you need someone to call you in the morning, then that's what we need to do," Goodwin says. "We need to link people up together who can help one another."

Another way vets can help one another, Goodwin says, is with baby-sitting duties — a favor that could make all the difference for a female veteran in need.

Copyright 2014 WHYY, Inc.. To see more, visit http://www.whyy.org.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, host:

This morning, we begin a series on the challenges women in the military face once they return home. There are nearly two million living female veterans. When they return from service, many try to pickup where they left off.

Jen Howard of member station WHYY in Philadelphia reports on women dealing with family responsibilities, even as they cope with the lingering effects of war.

We should warn you that some people will find this four-minute report disturbing.

(Soundbite of a creaking door)

JEN HOWARD: Here at the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Hospital, Louise Hawthorne is between appointments.

LOUISE HAWTHORNE: Hi. Did Ms. O'Donnell call me yet?

HOWARD: Hawthorne is a disabled veteran from the First Gulf War, over a decade ago. She was a Chemical Operations Specialist, dealing regularly with radioactive material and biological weapons. She suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and a number of health complications she feels are related to her exposure.

Ms. HAWTHORNE: Ive had several miscarriages. Ive had a couple of strokes. I was also gang raped in the military four separate times, none of which have been prosecuted.

HOWARD: Hawthorne alleges she tried to report the rapes to superiors but was rebuffed. Today she's part of a growing class action lawsuit filed in Virginia Federal court on behalf or active duty and veteran victims of sexual trauma. But at the time, Hawthorne says, she felt helpless. She tried to just get over it and do her job.

Ms. HAWTHORNE: We have basically, like, trained ourselves to act like that didnt hurt, roll with the punches. And so when we come back and we have, like, PTSD, flash backs, things like that, we deny it more than men do because were saying oh, well I just - well, shes just emotional.

HOWARD: So, once she was back, Hawthorne tried to keep her symptoms at bay. She finally had a baby with her husband, but then their marriage fell apart. And Hawthorne got sicker.

Ms. HAWTHORNE: When I did start coming back and forth to the VA hospital, I would often blow off appointments because I had to take care of my daughter.

HOWARD: This Philadelphia VA Hospital doesnt have childcare. And missing appointments, coupled with self-medication, was a recipe for disaster.

Ms. HAWTHORNE: Because I remember one instance when I had laid down, and she couldnt have been no older than five, and Id taken my medicine, and I was out cold. And I woke up to these little baby hands trying to CPR.

HOWARD: Its the kind of thing Marsha Four has seen before. Shes the executive director of the Philadelphia Veterans Multi-Service and Education Center.

Ms. MARSHA FOUR (Executive Director, Philadelphia Veterans Multi-Service and Education Center): When youre suffering with that kind of pain, it bleeds over, it becomes part of everything that you do.

HOWARD: Four speaks from experience, shes a Vietnam veteran. She says transitioning back to caretaker isnt always easy.

Ms. FOUR: You know, if theres issues or problems, well deal with them later. We have to get to the ballgame, or we have to get to the grocery store, or so many other things take precedence over our own health.

HOWARD: Four says the VA is working hard to provide better services for women. And things have improved. Theres better OB/GYN care, and some VA hospitals are opening child care centers. But, Four says, theres nothing like just talking with other female vets.

Ms. FOUR: They are your sister in arms. They understand you, they understand where you came from.

Ms. ALFEIA DEVAUGH GOODWIN (Operation Iraqi Freedom Veteran): I was very fortunate because I had that. I had someone I could just call and say what do I do?

HOWARD: Thats Alfeia DeVaughn Goodwin. Shes an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran. When she got back, she had three kids, a house that burned down, and a new career as a police officer. She recently founded Green to Blue, a group for other veterans who are becoming police officers too.

Each morning, she sends out dozens of encouraging of text messages.

Ms. GOODWIN: So if you need a ride to drill, or if you need someone to call you in the morning, then thats what we need to do. We need to link people up together who can help one another.

HOWARD: Goodwin says, another way vets could help one another is with babysitting duties: a favor that could make all the difference for a woman veteran in need.

For NPR News, Im Jen Howard in Philadelphia.

GREENE: And our series continues today on All Things Considered with the story of a woman making the transition from the military to a college campus.

(Soundbite of music)

GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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