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Women Handle Combat Stress As Well As Men, Study Shows

Combat Stress Women

First Posted: 06/08/11 06:21 PM ET Updated: 08/08/11 06:12 AM ET

From 2004 to 2005, Michelle Wilmot served in Iraq as a member of Team Lionness, the first female team attached to Marine infantry units to perform certain combat operations. She went on weapons and explosives searches, conducted house raids, and got shot at.

When she came home, people praised the 29-year-old for her service. But that praise often took on a tone that Wilmot, who served in the Army for a total of eight years, did not like.

"I'd hear, 'How did you do this?' And 'How do you deal with this as a woman?'" she said in a phone interview Wednesday. "I'd think, 'How ridiculous!' The question is, how do I deal with this as a person? It's not a gender thing."

A new study out this week suggests that when it comes to mental health problems following deployment, Wilmot is exactly right.

The article, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, finds that women are just as resilient to the effects of combat stress as men.

Looking at the answers from a survey of nearly 600 veterans, researchers including Dawne Vogt, a professor of psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine and researcher at the Veteran's Administration's National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, tracked stress measures like whether or not the soldiers had fired a gun or witnessed injuries or death. They then crossed those responses with four different post-deployment outcomes -- post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, substance abuse and mental health functioning.

What they found surprised them.

One year post-deployment, male and females reported experiencing the same degree of PTSD and depression rates and had comparable mental health functioning. The only slight difference in mental health outcomes came in terms of substance abuse, and their male respondents were slightly more likely to report problems in that area.

"In the broader trauma literature, there is a general finding that women are more negatively impacted by combat than men," Vogt told the HuffPost. "We hypothesized that we would see some real differences, with women looking worse off than men, but we didn't."

Vogt was quick to caution that their findings were not a result of women -- who are barred from serving in ground combat units -- seeing less action than men.

"The difference between men's and women's exposure to combat in Iraq and Afghanistan is actually relatively small among veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan," she said. "Exposure to combat is not just restricted to people in ground combat roles. It's insurgency warfare, there are no front lines. So more women than ever before are experiencing combat."

According to Linda Grant DePauw, professor emeritus of history at George Washington University and an expert on women and the military, these women can often feel an additional strain.

"Women have been able to function in the military even though they carry the double burden of trauma and [having to] operate without the support of a 'brotherhood' of brothers or sisters," she said.

In spite of that, DePauw said that the idea that women might be somehow less adept at coping with combat stressors is "clearly false."

The new study's authors did not delve deeply into why men and women show similar resilience to combat stressors, but they did offer a few hypotheses.

They wrote that the finding could reflect "improved training of female servicemembers in recent years," meaning that women are better prepared to deal with combat stress. Vogt also suggested that combat is a great equalizer of risk because it's such an intense, persistent stressor that it overwhelms most differences.

Wilmot would likely agree. Though she believes sexism continues to be a problem in the military and reported encountering it in several veteran's organizations, she said gender differences were a "non-issue" when she was out on missions in Ramadi.

"Women are in combat now," she said. "We're not inferior, or less capable or emotionally weak. I think it's funny that we even need a study to say that."

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