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Female veteran fights an invisible injury

Angel Harris returned from Afghanistan eight years ago pregnant and — like thousands of other female veterans — with a case of PTSD, a disorder that took six years to diagnose. The military has only recently begun to offer women the same PTSD benefits as men.

April 09, 2011|By Faye Fiore, Los Angeles Times
  • Angel Harris is one of more than 230,000 women to serve in Afghanistan or Iraq since 2001, about 15% of the U.S. forces to be deployed there.
Angel Harris is one of more than 230,000 women to serve in Afghanistan or… (Matthew Ratajczak )

Reporting from Williamsport, Pa. — The Bullfrog Brewery is crowded for lunch and tables are scarce, but former Army Sgt. Angel Harris finds one where she can sit with her back to a wall and still see out a window. She isn't sure what she's watching for. A sniper maybe, or an ambush.

This is downtown Williamsport — the Appalachian hamlet where Little League was born — not the sort of place where people wait around for something awful to happen. But that's the way Harris has viewed the world since she returned from Afghanistan eight years ago carrying her unborn son and a case of PTSD.

The baby was easy to figure out. A home pregnancy test administered in a camp latrine saw to that. The post-traumatic stress disorder took more than six years to diagnose. Women are not permitted to serve in direct ground combat in the U.S. armed forces, so by military reasoning, they weren't likely to suffer from combat-related trauma.

Except they do.

"I was one tough broad," says Harris, 34, who did a tour in Kosovo and one in Afghanistan, where she was the first female combat photographer deployed by the Army. "I was a bartender. I bounced people. I had no fear. Now, sometimes I'm afraid to leave my house."

Harris is one of more than 230,000 women to serve in Afghanistan or Iraq since 2001, about 15% of the U.S. forces to be deployed there. More than 750 have been wounded in action and 137 killed. Thousands more — 20% by the military's count — came home with PTSD, a debilitating anxiety disorder that, for female veterans, was at one time almost exclusively caused by sexual assault, not combat.

Modern warfare changed that. Gone are the days of infantry up front and everyone else to the rear. Truck drivers, military police, photographers — the non-infantry roles in which women inevitably wind up — are as exposed to roadside bombs and mortar attacks as their most highly trained brethren.

Yet a report in December by the Department of Veterans Affairs' Office of Inspector General found that women were denied PTSD benefits at a higher rate than men. That's because the VA required a combat badge or ribbon before authorizing compensation, something that women — restricted to noncombat jobs — couldn't earn. They and their male counterparts in noncombat roles were required to prove harm from a specific event.

In the course of the VA review, the rules changed last summer. Now, any veteran who had been deployed to a combat zone is eligible for compensated care, and the VA faces a need whose scope and size is unknown.

"The largest population harmed by the old rules was women. You get shot in the chest, it's pretty easy to see there's a hole in you. But invisible injuries like PTSD aren't isolated to one single event," explained Tom Tarantino, senior legislative associate for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

He likened a woman with combat trauma to a paratrooper who jumps out of a plane 7,000 times and is asked to name the jump that wrecked his knees: "It's cumulative. Wear and tear on the body is easy to understand. Wear and tear on the mind is not."

That's how it was for Harris. No single horrific tale changed her from a gung-ho girl eager to serve her country to a suburban housewife peeking out the door suspiciously when the neighbors knock.

The sum total of her wartime service did it. Somewhere along the way, something in her head clicked and Harris crossed from fearless recruit to tormented soldier. She left the Army feeling like "something is wrong with me," and entered a world of play dates and preschool under a pall of combat trauma.

From the time she was 10, Angel Harris wanted to join the Army. Her parents hoped college would change her mind. It didn't. She earned a bachelor's degree in marketing and signed up for six years as a combat photographer with the 55th Signal Company.

This was pre-Sept. 11, 2001, America was at peace, and talk of overseas fighting was, to Harris, just talk. She left for Kosovo at 22, newly married and, by her own account, naive. "I got woken up to the ways of the world pretty quick."

The wake-up call came during an enemy mortar attack on a distant Kosovo mountaintop. Harris thought little of it until a week later when she saw what a mortar could do: a village occupied by U.S. soldiers, wrecked. Two civilians dead.

"That's when it kicked in, what had happened the week before to me. It's one thing to hear the locals are shooting each other, but to mortar American soldiers on a peacekeeping mission?"

After that she was different. Alcohol is forbidden in the war zone, so she drank what she could get her hands on: beer, whiskey, vodka, disguised in a water bottle — a textbook sign of PTSD. She pushed away her husband, another sign. "I couldn't call home and say, 'Hey, honey, guess what I did today?' He wouldn't understand."

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