SAN DIEGO — As a gung-ho Marine, she was among the first troops sent to the Persian Gulf. And although she never saw combat, she was shipped home suffering the same kind of shock, depression and flashbacks that combat veterans often experience.
A strong-willed woman in her mid-20s who had hoped to make the Marine Corps a career, she had been assaulted while sleeping. Several male Marines threw a blanket over her head and began pummeling her in a kind of hard-core harassment called a "blanket party." Fearing that she was being attacked by the enemy, she ran out of her tent naked, in full view of other Marines.
Her confidence shattered and her military career over, she is undergoing counseling under a new Veterans Administration program to help women veterans who have been sexually traumatized while on active duty.
"She has been almost totally unable to function," said Mavis Young, a registered nurse and sexual trauma counselor at the veterans center run by the VA in Vista, north of San Diego. "There is still a lot of work to be done."
Long ignored by the military and the society at large, the problem of sexual attacks on military servicewomen by their male colleagues is now a major concern for the Veterans Administration, which has begun an unprecedented outreach to the nation's 1.1 million women veterans.
As part of that effort, a three-day conference in San Diego this week brought together 500 VA employees from across the nation to discuss women's health issues and, specifically, the post-traumatic stress disorder associated with sexual attacks.
One focus of the conference is a sampling done by a researcher at the Tufts University Medical School that suggests that 8% of the 36,000 American servicewomen sent to the Persian Gulf were the objects of attempted or completed sexual assaults.
The study, done by Tufts researcher Jessica Wolfe, a specialist in post-trauma stress disorders, also found that more than half of the women who served in Desert Storm felt they had been at least verbally harassed.
"These were not Iraqi soldiers raping American women," said Dr. Susan Mather, assistant chief medical director for environmental medicine and public health at the VA's central office in Washington.
"These were American soldiers raping other American soldiers," said Mary P. Koss, a professor of family and community medicine at the University of Arizona medical school.
Koss, who gave the keynote address "The Health Burden of Rape," said studies have shown that a rape victim is just as likely as a combat veteran to suffer from post-traumatic stress, including flashbacks, depression, lethargy and unreasoning fear and anxiety. About 15% of rape victims, and 15% of combat veterans, undergo some post-traumatic stress, Koss said.
Congressional hearings in mid-1992 were highlighted by riveting testimony from women veterans from operation Desert Storm telling about being sexually harassed and assaulted.
In response, Congress passed a bill increasing VA care for women veterans and giving priority to those who have suffered sexual trauma. To be eligible for counseling and other care, women must notify the VA by December, 1995.
Even before the Persian Gulf War and the Tailhook scandal, the military had taken steps to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment and sexual assault. How successful that approach will be is unclear, as women take a larger role in the military, including some combat assignments.
"Whenever women are brought in to a previously male-dominated occupation, you have higher rates of harassment," Koss said.
Although no studies were done of women who served in Vietnam or other forward deployments, anecdotal evidence suggests that the Persian Gulf operation was not the first time that servicewomen were victimized.
"For a long time the military condoned harassment of women," said Donna K. Buechler, a nurse in Vietnam and now a counselor with the Veterans Administration. "Men who would never have harassed women in civilian life thought it was fine in the military."
The sexual trauma counseling is part of a larger shift in attitude toward women veterans on the part of the Veterans Administration, which has 172 medical centers nationwide and serves 2.8 million patients annually.
Not many years ago, the VA's idea of helping women veterans was largely restricted to providing gynecology care and separate bathrooms, said Mather.
"Nobody even studied women veterans until 1988," said Joan Furey, an Army nurse in Vietnam and currently director of the VA's Office of Policy and Planning.
One reason for the change is growing evidence that women, civilian or military, have medical problems and histories that differ from those of men. For example, they have higher rates of thyroid disease, lupus, arthritis, diabetes, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer's disease, and a different set of symptoms for heart disease.
As it tries to implement the 1992 law, the VA is attempting different approaches at different VA medical centers.
At six centers--including the center in West Los Angeles--fellowships are offered for physicians interested in women's health issues. The goal is to get those physicians to write the textbooks that will guide VA care in the future.
In other VA regions, counselors have been hired and trained to work with women suffering post-traumatic stress resulting from sexual trauma. In some areas, the counselors are deliberately stationed away from the medical center so that women do not suffer flashbacks when re-entering a male-oriented atmosphere.
In San Diego County, with a large number of women veterans, the counselors are stationed at centers in Vista and near Balboa Park, far from the county's military bases. Like other counselors, they are finding that many women who have been harassed or assaulted in the military had also suffered earlier sexual trauma, often in their childhood.