Sleep was something that Army Spc. Jennifer Crane preferred not to do, after returning from eight months of military service in Afghanistan in 2003. Sleep meant dreams of the Taliban throwing mortars at her tent in Bagram Airfield and the 20-year-old resident of Downingtown, Penn. would wake up sweating and terrified.
To avoid sleeping, Crane turned to cocaine. And after several months of use, she reached a low one night in November 2005. No matter how much she snorted, it was not enough. So Crane grabbed some knives and decided she would end her life.
"I started slicing the tops of my arms just to see what it would do. I can remember standing there and putting a knife in my wrist," Crane said. "I never wanted so badly to go to bed and not wake up."
A few months later at the local Veterans Affairs medical center in Coatesville, Penn., she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, a psychiatric illness characterized by flashbacks, perpetual vigilance and irritability.
She entered a treatment program, but she was released just before finishing it, because, she claims, "being a female was of distraction for male patients."
Robert Whitney, psychologist and clinical coordinator of the Coatesville Medical Center PTSD program, said he couldn't comment on specific cases. But he said the center is currently treating 34 veterans, four of whom are women, and having both sexes in the same psychotherapy group is not an issue.
"For the most part, we don't have a lot of challenges with that," he said, adding that the program is one of the best in the country, according to recent assessments of the Veterans Affairs Northeast Program Evaluation Center.
After Crane left the program, she started getting high again, smoking crack cocaine. She was broke and living in her car. Then she got arrested for possession of drugs.
Crane is now 27, rehabilitated, married and the mother of a two-year-old daughter. She is one of the 150,000 veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq who have been diagnosed with PTSD by the veterans' health system, while thousands more have received diagnoses from private doctors, according to veteran advocacy groups.
The government issued new rules on Monday making it easier for veterans diagnosed with PTSD to receive disability benefits. They no longer have to document specific events like bomb blasts that might have caused the illness. Veterans get compensation if they can show they worked in a war zone in a job that could have contributed to PTSD. This new rule can stop the discrimination against service members who don't serve in so-called "combat roles," most of whom are women.
"I was a paralegal, so my job in theory wasn't combat-related," commented Crane, who in Afghanistan served under the Judge Advocate General of the Army. "But people were trying to blow up the building I worked in. We should stop thinking in terms of front-line, there is no front-line anymore. I think we should stop using that as our dictation for whether or not people are damaged by the war."
Although women technically serve only in combat support roles, that doesn't shield them from traumatic experiences like roadside bombs, wounded civilians, and sexual harassment. Women -- who make up about 11% of the U.S. Army -- are even more likely than men to develop PTSD, according to a recent study by the University of New Mexico.
"Now we are seeing women who have been exposed to both sexual trauma and to combat trauma," said Diane Castillo, a psychologist at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center of Women's Stress Disorder Clinic at the University of New Mexico, who received a $1 million grant from the Department of Defense for a four-year study on PTSD and women. "The higher number of traumas an individual has, the more likely he or she is to develop PTSD."
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