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Women in Combat: Handling Stress

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Until the white-bearded Afghan man on a bike showed up, the joint patrol with Afghan national police and paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne had gone without incident. It was hot and tense, boots kicking up dust, men and boys squatting in shopfronts watching with indifference or hostility. One of the GIs was a young female soldier, an MP, and she was carrying an M249 Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW), a so-called "light" machine gun which weighs more than 20 pounds, with ammo.

I don't know how the guy on the bike identified this trooper as a woman, but apparently he did, and coming fast from behind he jolted her elbow with his handlebar before veering off cackling madly -- and she swung that weapon with a snarl and took a bead on his flapping robe ... and then spit into the dust and resumed walking. There was no justification for opening fire and she knew it. But her jaw was clenched tight.

I thought of that incident, which I witnessed in Kapisa Province several years ago, as the debate about women at war has heated up with the Pentagon's decision to allow women to compete for combat jobs. Not because women are targets, or more vulnerable than men. But because all those who serve in war zones, whether they are machine gunners or truck drivers or military police, face constant, persistent stress that can build over the course of three or six or 12 months at war.

It's long been an argument of opponents of opening combat jobs to women that they can't deal with this kind of stress as well as men; that women are more vulnerable to emotional damage.

But that appears not to be the case, at least in the short run. A detailed study by a senior researcher for the National Center for PTSD and the Boston VA Medical Center suggests that women have about the same reaction to wartime stress as men do.

"We were surprised," said VA psychologist Dawne Vogt, who authored the 2011 study of almost 600 men and women recently returned from deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan. Her team calculated the "combat stressors" that each veteran had been exposed to, including participating in firefights, seeing dead bodies, not getting enough sleep, lack of privacy and fear. Then they looked at how the troops were reacting to these stresses, measuring their alcohol use, depression and general mental health functioning. Men reported only slightly higher exposure to direct combat than women. But their reactions were about the same.

"We didn't see any meaningful differences" between men and women, Vogt told me. The data suggested "that the women are just as resilient to the effects of combat stress than men." Previous research on civilian men and women had suggested that women are more vulnerable to a short-term spike in stress -- say, a car wreck -- than men. But the persistence of stress in a war zone may level out gender differences, Vogt said.

Dawne Vogt's study isn't conclusive. But it does add some much-needed factual data into the debate about women and combat.

It also should remind us, as we continue to welcome the troops home, that each person who goes to war comes home having absorbed enormous stress, and each deals with it in his or her own way.