Project Aims To Help Women Vets Heal The Wounds Of War
Women in the military have proven themselves as brave, disciplined professionals. But, we're just starting to learn the differences in how the stress of a warzone and the treatment women receive in the military, affect female war veterans. Last weekend, a retreat here in San Diego was held for women veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. It was sponsored by the Coming Home Project - an organization made up of psychotherapists, veterans and interfaith leaders. It's one of several outreach programs that the Coming Home Project offers to servicemembers transitioning back to life at home.
Dr. Joseph Bobrow, Founder and President of the Coming Home Project
Heather Debe, veteran
Linda Stanley, veteran
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MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. Women in the military have proven themselves as brave disciplined professionals. But we're just starting to learn the differences in how the stress of a war zone and the treatment women receive in the military affect female war veterans. Last weekend, I retreat here in San Diego was held for women veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, it was sponsored by the coming home project. That's an organization made up of psychotherapists, veterans, and interfaith leaders of it's one of several outreach programs that the coming home project offers to service members transitioning back to life at home. I'd like to welcome my guests, doctor Joseph Bobrow, he is founder and president of the coming home project. And doctor Bobrow, welcome to These Days.
BOBROW: It's a pleasure to be with you.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Captain Heather Debe [CHECK AUDIO] and service members, held this past weekend in Oceanside. Captain Debe, welcome.
DEBE: Thank you very much. And good morning.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Good morning. Major Linda Stanley is a veteran of the army and air force who participated in the retreat for female veterans and service members here in Oceanside. Major Stanley, welcome.
STANLEY good morning.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, let me start with you, Joseph Bobrow. How are women affected differently by the stresses of war?
BOBROW: Well, women at our retreats say that they have to work twice as hard for half the recognition. And I think that's a major difference. They also say that in -- for the most part, it's a man's military that they're working in, and therefore they feel they do have to work twice as hard for half of the recognition. I think combat and service affect everybody, those who are in combat, and those also who are alongside combat as well as families and others connected with the service member. I think women are not recognized to actually participate in combat operations when in fact they do. So I think there are a number of differences.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.
BOBROW: And these are some.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Tell me a little bit about the retreat, if you would Joseph, that was held in Oceanside over the weekend.
BOBROW: Well, it lasted for four days, and we welcomed 50 women from California and also from around the country. And these were active duty, guard, reserve, as well as women who've separated from the military. And they all came together for their own healing and their own renewal. We provided a variety of services for them, including creating a safe place where they could begin to feel trusting and share their stories and experiences with other women who would understand what they have been through. We also taught and practice stress management and wellness techniques that could help them regulate their emotional lives. And also offered a variety of expressive arts activities such as movement and dance, journalling and various arts activities to express what sometimes cannot be spoken or expressed verbally. And we had the retreat in a beautiful place, mission San Luis ray, which itself can be healing. And we also invited them to engage in two recreational activities, one was equine therapy, being around and grooming and riding horses at the nearby ivy ranch, and also a nature walk with a national geographic photographer down by the ketose lagoon.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's lovely. Major Linda Stanley, I introduced you briefly when I welcomed you to the show. I know that you're retired, you served in Iraq, and as a nurse. And you also suffered from PTSD, combat related PTSD, I'm wondering, why did you want to participate in this coming home project retreat?
STANLEY: Well, it's hard to explain to the general public that feeling of not being normal in our society. You know, it was the first time I felt somewhat normal, meaning everyone this shared the same bond and experience from our deployment. And we were old and young, all branches of the military were there, but it was really empowering to be around women that I didn't have to explain myself or hide some of my weakness, well, not weaknesses. Some of the things left over from my combat experience that I experience every day on the freeway or in public with people.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, can you tell us what some of those things are?
STANLEY: Well, I actually live in Oceanside. So for me, you know, I worked at a combat hospital that receives casualties every night. And helicopters were a big thing. I used to not be able to control my anxiety when I would hear those. And being on the freeway in San Diego, I know many people that's always an issue, but for me, I always feel like I'm gonna die. And to have some of those other feelings expressed by other women and women who have been exposed to combat, knowing that I'm not the only one out there that feels this way was really comforting to me because women in the military, we never want to appear weak. You know, we're always fighting men, that facade of portraying this strong front because we're a woman in the military, and it's hard to express that when I started having problems to even tell anyone that I was having problems.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And captain Heather Debe, I want to go into your experience a little bit too. I know that you have some hearing loss, was that from your time in the military?
DEBE: It was -- was aggravated by prolonged times of being [CHECK AUDIO] at the N16 range. I didn't realize that I had hearing loss that was getting worse. I always wore my hearing protection. But hearing is something that's naturally going to get worse, it never generally gets better.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right.
DEBE: So it was that I did have some military exposure, and also just the normal aging process where you don't hear something at age 40, and all of a sudden at age 60, you're hearing a little better.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Something to look forward to.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, that you're a nurse, and that you served in Iraq, and that you really wanted to get into this coming home program that you applied for it a number of different time. When was it like to be able to speak with other female veterans.
DEBE: Well, it was a wonderful opportunity I served in Iraq in Baghdad, and actually in Mosul, with the first CSH, and the 67th CSH, "cash" being combat support hospital, and that was in '04. And I did get out of the military within about three weeks of coming back from Iraq and had a period of many years of being out in the service, didn't put on a uniform. And so I wasn't ever around anyone that I -- I felt comfortable sharing my experiences or what I remember of it, dreams that I would have of certain cases -- I was an operating room nurse in Iraq, and I never was around anyone that I felt comfortable sharing those experiences 'cause everyone I was around was a civilian, had never been in a war zone.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. Right.
DEBE: And when I heard about this program about a year and a half ago, maybe, I did apply for it a couple of times until this time I finally did get a seat. And it was a really great environment of getting to share with other female veterans.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right.
DEBE: You felt safe, you felt accepted, you knew that they also had a combat experience. It might have been different, of course, 'cause we were all there at different times, different places, doing different jobs. But it was still combat experience.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right.
DEBE: So it really -- since '04, it really was the first time I had ever felt comfortable enough to share with anyone.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Let me ask doctor Bobrow if I can, I think that I read that it is more likely for women veterans to suffer from PTSD that happen it is for male war -- combat veterans. And I wonder if we know why that is.
BOBROW: I'm not sure we do. And I'm -- you know, I think additional research needs to be done in this area. I think generalizations like this can be actually kind of unhelpful. It might make it seem that women are more prone to break down, say, than men. And I actually think that's not the case. So I think the jury is out on the differential effects of service related and war related trauma on men and how they differ from how women are affected. I think it's important to understand some of the psychology of women and tailor programs like ours and also other treatment programs that particularly address the needs of women, you know, for a sense of community and safety and trust to open up and share their stories. But I think the jury is out and more research is needed on the differential effects of war related stress on men and women.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So is research being conducted into that? Into the way -- if there is a difference at all on the way that combat stresses affect men and women? And also how to -- different ways that men and women can recover from those effects?
BOBROW: I believe it is. I am not as familiar with it as I might be.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Okay. I'm speaking with doctor Joseph Bobrow, he is founder and president of the coming home project. Captain, that is, Heather Debe, and army reservist who participated in the retreat that we just had here for female veterans in Oceanside. And major Linda STANLEY: , a veteran who also participated in the retreat. And let me ask you, major STANLEY: , we've heard that, you know, there were -- there was an opportunity for you to speak with the women veterans who have been through similar experienced -- as you are in Iraq. And I'm wondering what is it like to be a woman in the military today?
STANLEY: Well, it's a wonderful -- I had a wonderful career that honors what I did in the military. And I never would have picked any other career having just retired I say that with the highest honor. What is it like? You have a lot of opportunities in the military. You can do almost anything right now. And you get the support from leadership to accomplish that. I just don't think people -- they under estimate what anyone is exposed to in combat. And the type of war we have today. And the [CHECK AUDIO] war we have today, and what that does to the individual, whether you're male or female, the families, the children, I think that's all being studied because we haven't been in a war this long before, but as far as I'm concerned, my career, being a woman in the military was a great choice for me. I wouldn't have chose any other career path for me, myself anyway.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Major STANLEY: , do you think that because there is this perception that women are not exposed to combat that they don't -- that they're not suffering from combat related stresses?
STANLEY: I think there's a perception in the past. I think it's getting better with programs like this, like the coming home project. And all the other things that the Department of Defense is doing in the national PTSD, studying them. I think they're seeing it from across all ages and all career paths, that a person, you know, trauma is trauma it to whoever that person is. And the way the war is over there, you could be, you know, people don't really think nurses -- we're right on the front lines. I mean our hospital was right next to the perimeter. We could [CHECK AUDIO] and we could actually see the muzzle shots, you know? And people would sometimes think that just myself you might be on a big base that you're not exposed to combat or the thought of I might die here. And those kind of feelings, I think, that the country doesn't realize, and even in the military sometimes I find some people, some people think that oh, you were on this side or you were over here in a protected area. And it was a type of suicide bombings and that threat is constantly there, trauma is trauma to whoever the person or individual is. And that's what is hard to come back to and face, as a country and as a nation, and as people in the military and families.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break and when we return, I'd like to open our phones up to perhaps other women who have been in the military, who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, about the kind of support services they got in the military, and the kind of support they got from their families and friend when is they did come home. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. That's 1-888-895-KPBS. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.
I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, you're listening to These Days on KPBS. We're talking about a retreat here in Oceanside over the weekend for women in the military who've come home from deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of it's called the coming home project, and with me is doctor Joseph Bobrow, he's founder and president of the coming home project, and two of the people who took part in the weekend retreat, captain Heather Debe, and major Linda STANLEY: , and we are taking your calls if you would like to join the conversation at 1-888-895-5727. That's 1-888-895-KPBS. Joseph Bobrow, I'm wondering, give me some background on the coming home project. Why did you found this organization?
BOBROW: I thought that there was room for community based groups to augment the group of the VA, and the Department of Defense military treatment centers. That there was areas for improvement, that we could bring to the table. It also seemed to me that the many service members were reluctant to come forward to get assistance. And the question of stigma is to this very day something that people are trying to eliminate and make it easier for service members, veterans, to come forward to get help. And it seemed to me that if we were to create a setting where veterans could come and feel safe and trusting and a sense of belonging and community. And to have it staffed by people who were well trained and understood veterans and families, but it was not a clinical setting, that's to say we have well trained psychotherapists, some older veterans and family members and military chaplains and interfaith leaders who understand the challenges. So we have peers who are part of our facilitation staff, but we also have highly trained therapists. But not necessarily doing psychotherapy, so bringing in extra teas and creating a safe place for veteran, their families, their children to come together and form a sense of community. And this seemed very important. And in fact it has played out that way, that increasing numbers of people have come to our retreats and reconnected with themselves from the effects of service related and war zone related trauma. They've reconnected with their family members, and they've reconnected with their peers, which is a very important source of support. And they've reconnected with their communities, and resources in their communities. Maureen, I'd just like to also say briefly, some of the specific needs of women veterans. While I may not be that familiar with the state of the art research, women do have unique challenges that they face, and one of them is military sexual trauma. There's -- this exists on a range from sexual harassment all the way to sexual assault. And it's thought that as many as 25 percent of military women have been sexually assaulted. Some of the other challenges is that women often tend to be in a care giver role during their lives, and this can be some conflicts over that role also with their partners. Domestic violence can be a problem that women face, and their young children who they need to leave when they deploy. It's estimated that as many as 30 percent of women veterans who use VA services are dying dosed with mental health disorders. And I think that women tend to be very relation and affiliative, so I think that some of the modalities that we at the coming home project have developed, meeting in large group, meeting in small groups really lend themselves to the kind of relationships that women need to cultivate to expedite their healing.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's doctor Joseph Bobrow, he's founder and president of the coming home project. And we are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And on the line with us, former assembly woman, Lori Saldaña, good morning. And welcome to These Days.
NEW SPEAKER: Good morning. And their for such an important program. San Diego County is home to the most -- the highest concentration of returning conflict veterans in the country. So the programs doctor Bobrow is describing, especially for women is so essential. And through my years on the veterans' affairs committee in Sacramento, we held so many hearings, and I focused on women because I was chair of the women's caucus, [CHECK AUDIO] and their families and their children. So I just want to add and maybe confirm that what I learned is that there is only one full time residential treatment center for women veterans in the nation, and it only houses about 24 women in Palo Alto California. And I'm wondering if the doctor knows if that's improved because clearly our federal government is not keeping up with the needs that these women veterans have when they come back. So I just wanted to point out California is aware of that. I worked in the legislature to increase our work on this issue, and I'm wondering if things are improving at the federal level.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for the phone call, Lori Saldaña. And doctor Bobrow, are things improving? Do we have more trauma center?
Well, I would also like to hear from Linda and Heather regarding this question. But it seems to me that there has been a rise in consciousness about the specific needs of women veterans. And there are programs being developed. I'm not sure specifically what they are, I'm very familiar with the program in Palo Alto. And that's also an outpatient program at the VA in Palo Alto as well. I think in general people are starting to realize that women do serve in fact they are 15 percent of the active military. They're 20 percent of new recruits, 17 percent of reserve and national guard. And as of April 6th, they were 13 percent of the OIF and OEF groups. So I think consciousness is rising in terms of how that's being implemented in specific programs. I'm not certain. Perhaps Linda or Heather might have more information about this.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, we'll go to that. But first, Terry from San Diego is calling us. Good morning, Terry and welcome to These Days.
NEW SPEAKER: Hi, hi, thanks for taking my call and for presenting this program. I think it's a really important program to have, and to think about trauma that people go through, post traumatic stress disorder, when they're in those situations, I think there needs to be more education about what that trauma is, and not be [CHECK AUDIO] a weakness in somebody. So I just wanted to put it out there that this trauma is written on the body, I'm a performing artist, and I think this is a [CHECK AUDIO] whether it's psychological, emotional, or physical, goes into their bodies and needs to be dealt with in these retreat like situations. And I just wanted to put it out there, my husband and I would love to be involved in something like this. He's in acupuncture. [CHECK AUDIO] if you wanna get ahold of me, I'm at TAWilson@PTSD.EDU.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Got it. Thank you, Terry [CHECK AUDIO] I'm sure they can use all the help they can get. Thanks for calling in. I wanted to speak with [CHECK AUDIO] and Heather, if I may call you that, what kind of support did you get from family and friends when you returned from deployment?
DEBE: Well, I actually came back kind of in a very small group, almost by myself. So to be quite honest with you, when I finally made it to the El Paso airport, there wasn't even anyone there.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Wow.
DEBE: Because I was a small, just basically almost one troop. Of course when it's a bigger unit or larger movement, there is more awareness and more preparation the. But it took me a few minutes to find the person that had come to pick me up. And --
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And when you did get home, Heather, did the people -- were you able to rely on the support of your family and friends? Or do you think that there could have been something extra that people could have done?
DEBE: Well, my family was wonderful. I of course was in Texas still and they were in Minnesota. They were just thrilled to have me back on U.S. soil. So at first it was just phone calls and stuff for the first couple of months until I got to actually take leave and go back up to Minnesota. When I finished outprocessing from the military. Back in '04, that was kind of the beginning of the war. Now, I think they've come a long way in receiving troops back, and offering them services. I think there's some program called beyond the yellow ribbon that I think all soldiers coming back have to go through this program, and it -- I don't know a lot about it, because I haven't gone to it because they didn't have it when I came back.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's interesting. I want to speak with major STANLEY: . Linda, you know when you have participated in this retreat, and one of the things that we found out since we've been talking about this is that it's harder for women in the military to admit that they are afraid or that they're being affected by what's going on around them. Did you suspicious that, and tell us a lot bit about it from your experience and the other women that you know of in the military?
STANLEY: Well, when you're over there, you have a mission. Of so you focus on that mission. And that's the first thing in your mind. You don't really have time to process what you're seeing. It's when you come back. And usually it's not for a while because you're kind of in that honey moon period of being pack. I shipped off within six months, I was now deployed to Korea for a year. So I was away from my family and friends almost immediately after coming back from my deployment. But when I did get together with my family, and I think this is kind of unique to some women, and some women have shared -- when I shared this, they say this resonates with them. I told my husband one story, and I saw the tears in his eyes. And I -- you know, I think it's maybe because he's my husband, and he realized that his wife has gone to war, not him. And that I had seen really horrible things. I decided at that moment, I couldn't share anymore with him. And I didn't for a few years because I didn't want to put that burden, and I think that's not something unique to women. I mean, I think men also experience that with their family members. You don't want to have them traumatized by what you saw or heard when you were deployed. Of the and I -- I think the brave part, you just don't have time to be afraid, but later on, even as you're there, and maybe a mortar hits right by, one hit a trailer by me, and I was thrown on my bed, and I realized, you know, I could die here. It was kind of one of those things I never really faced until it comes right to your face.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right.
STANLEY: Yeah, and you don't want to admit you're afraid, but I think everyone at some time is afraid. But you just still, like I said, you focused on your mission 'cause I had people and patients depending upon me, and I was gonna complete my mission.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Absolutely. Linda, let me go back to the first thing you said though. So you found you couldn't share it with your are husband and -- who did you share it with?
STANLEY: No one. I couldn't share it with a lot of the people in the military, hadn't been deployed, and just feel like I could share it with them. And I felt I couldn't share it with anyone. I thought I was the only one having problems with sleep, and then the nightmares. I thought I was the only one. And I was in charge of a lot of people, so I kind of just kept thinking, I can lock myself out of this. You know? I'm a strong woman. I can do this. But in the end, I couldn't until I got the help. I do have a battle buddy who's a colonel that I -- later on, we shared together. And she's been a great relief. But we spread out all over the country, whether you're army, air force, Navy. So you don't have those people that you deployed with to go and talk with on the weekends. And that makes it difficult for any military member.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Well, major --
BOBROW: I would like.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Very shortly if you could, doctor Bobrow.
BOBROW: Sure. I think that the difficulty admitting that things that combat related trauma really affected you affects men as well as women. And I think it's important to point that out, that programs such as ours that create a safe place make it easier to [CHECK AUDIO] men and women.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Doctor Joseph Bobrow, [CHECK AUDIO].
BOBROW: Thank you.
BOBROW: Well, thank you very much.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And major Linda STANLEY: . Thank you.
STANLEY: Thank you. Bye Heather.
BOBROW: Bye Linda, bye Heather.
STANLEY: Bye Joseph.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Oh, my. If you would like to comment please go on like, KPBS.org/These Days.