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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

By the time her six-month tour ended in summer 2001, so had the marriage. The America she came back to was too busy sipping lattes to recognize the inevitable doom she felt. A month later, 19 hijackers confirmed her view: "It cemented everything I believed," she said, "that at any point, at any time, someone's going to take your life."

She got as drunk as she could as often as she could, and called her husband one night. He took her back 30 days before the divorce was final.

If Harris had changed as a person, the Army didn't seem to notice. She was promoted to sergeant and sent to Afghanistan in 2002: "I was ecstatic. Over there, everybody was like I was, living in danger, being a soldier."

Her mind recorded the carnage as surely as her camera did. The mangled wreckage of the helicopter where four soldiers died. The coffin with the remains of a sergeant she'd never met, but would spend years thinking about. The Afghan man who groped her in broad daylight. She still wonders why she stood there and took it.

Harris had gone over pregnant, but didn't know it. At four months, there was no denying it. Pregnancy is not only forbidden in deployment, it's stigmatized — a coward's way out. She worried whether the drinking, stress and malaria pills might have harmed the baby. She came home in January 2003 and quit the Army a month before Ayden Donavan Harris was born. In her mind, she had let her country down.

Women have served the nation honorably since the American Revolution. Deborah Sampson impersonated a man and enlisted twice; Molly Corbin took over her husband's job loading cannons after he was killed in battle. Today, women deploy in greater numbers than ever before. Yet the effects of combat on them have only recently been explored.

The emerging data suggest that what men and women take away from war is "pretty comparable," said Amy Street, a clinical psychologist with the National Center for PTSD and the VA Healthcare System in Boston, which studies the effects of combat on women.

"These women are not victims," Street said. "That's not to say their experiences aren't terribly difficult, but they sign up knowing the potential cost. They do it because they are proud of what they do and good at what they do."

The VA has been treating PTSD for years, including with a highly effective cognitive behavior method known as talk therapy, Street said. Historically, though, it was applied to military women who had experienced sexual assault, not combat trauma. As a growing number of injured women return from war, the VA is shifting focus to make top-of-the-line care readily accessible for them.

"These treatments can be very effective in helping veterans, both men and women, get their lives back on track," Street said.

When Harris came home in 2003, no one was talking about combat stress. She hung her uniforms in a closet and took her place as a stay-at-home mom in suburbia, with its low crime and backyard cookouts. No matter. It might as well have been Kandahar. She bolted the windows and doors. Once, while barricading the place before a repairman arrived, she accidentally locked 6-month-old Ayden inside in his bouncy chair. She was in such a panic, the locksmith didn't charge her.

One PTSD symptom is the inability to connect to loved ones, but when it came to Ayden, she "took Mother Bear to a new extreme." Other new mothers invited her over. Too risky; public parks or restaurants only. Her sister-in-law asked to take the baby on a stroller ride around the block. Out of the question.

"I remember thinking, why would I want to let him do that?" she said of Ayden. "These were normal, everyday thoughts for me."

Half of her wanted to guard her son and the other half was desperate to be back in Afghanistan where people like her were smart, not crazy. She reenlisted in 2009, this time in the Navy Reserve, asking to deploy. The Navy obliged. Her husband hung in there. She took him to a veterans' retreat hoping he would see her side and, in the course of it, realized he wasn't the one with the problem.

It was suddenly clear: What kind of a mother is relieved when her son twists his ankle at a crowded park because she's desperate for any excuse to leave? Who takes a different route to drive their child five blocks to school every day?

She called the VA for help and was diagnosed with PTSD. Paying for treatment was another matter. The VA would not cover the cost until she established that her injury was service-connected. The bills mounted while she gathered photographs and letters proving she was what the tattoo on her left leg attested, in Arabic: "damaged goods."

The VA approved Harris for PTSD benefits in February 2010 — seven years after she came home. Weekly treatment appears to be working. She is holding down a job as a women's prison guard and sleeping five hours a night. She lets Ayden, 7, visit friends by himself. Intent on a new life, she rented an apartment and filed for divorce.

"I don't want to be the new face of PTSD," she said. "What I want is for that woman hiding in her house, peeking out her window at her neighbors, keeping her kids inside, to know that she's not going crazy. Because I felt like I was going crazy for a long, long time."

The Navy learned of her diagnosis and pulled her orders six days before she was to leave for Afghanistan in January. A medical board is reviewing her fitness to serve. If they'll have her, she's going. "Ayden's old enough now," she said, acknowledging the change of heart and explaining: "I didn't finish. I left my team."

She heads outside the brewery for a cigarette and comes back asking the only question left: "So why would a person with PTSD want to go to the place that caused it?"

Easy.

"Because over there," she says, "I'm normal."

faye.fiore@latimes.com

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