News: Help on the way for female combat veterans
Story by Sgt. Heidi Agostini
Sgt. Nora Mund’s eyes welled up with tears as she fumbled with the black bracelet worn on her left wrist. Branded with the name of a fallen Marine she befriended during her Afghanistan-tour, the band serves as a memorial and a constant reminder of a life cut short. It’s one of many combat memories she finds difficult to suppress.
Mund, who is currently assigned to the Wounded Warrior Battalion West, deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 as part of the Female Engagement Team. While her duties as a FET Marine enabled her to assist Marines in interacting with the local Afghan population, it also unfortunately brought her to witness many of the ugly realities of combat, from losing friends to graphic visuals of death. These are feelings that she still struggles with today.
To help cope with these feelings, Mund has joined other female combat veterans in forming an all-female counseling and transition support group here at Camp Pendleton. The first meeting is scheduled for July 15 to help female service members cope with combat stress and common challenges they may face as they transition home.
Mund’s “tough-as-nails” exterior began to crack shortly after her return. Her team was disbanded, and the women on the FET returned to their parent units. The required post-combat counseling for the FET, she says, did little to prepare her to return to her unit and fell apart after the fourth meeting.
Two weeks after she returned to her unit, Mund noticed that her frustrations and anger overwhelmed her, and the meritoriously promoted female combat veteran admitted her struggle to transition back to a pre-deployment routine. Combined with physical and emotional wounds she sustained from her combat tour, the roller coaster of emotions sent Mund running for help.
Mund said what made the transition worse was her sudden separation from the group of female Marines she deployed with, and returning to a shop where her co-workers were unaware of her combat duties.
“The women, like the men, need continuity,” said Jody Fochs, a licensed clinical consultant and retired Navy nurse at the Wounded Warrior Battalion West. “They don’t have that solidarity.”
Foch pointed out that infantrymen deploy, return and transition together. When they change duty stations they check into an infantry unit, where they can share experiences with others who might have the same combat experience.
“Grunts stay together,” Mund said. “They may move from grunt unit to grunt unit, but our FET females went from grunt unit to admin, grunt unit to logistics or grunt unit to food services. How are they supposed to talk about their deployment and their struggles with coworkers who have no idea what they went through?”
The FET team isn’t the only population that is seeking help. There are thousands of female veterans who have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan who have been exposed to direct fire or experienced some type of combat while serving in support roles such as combat photographers, truck drivers, radio operators and military policemen.
“The transition group is the missing link,” Fochs said. “This is part of the women’s movement. We stress so much about warrior transition and assistance, but female Marines seem to be a different arm on that animal. Females are stigmatized, sometimes shut down by male Marines and endure a lot of sarcasm. They shouldn’t have to take any of that.”
The female combat transition group will be open to all combat veterans, including those who served on the Iraq Lioness program, female corpsmen who treated combat wounded and the countless veterans stemming from Vietnam to Desert Storm who served during a time when combat stress was an all-male issue.
“There are females who need help,” Mund says. “But naturally they’re embarrassed or ashamed to seek help. I recognize problems myself because I see it. It’s almost like recognizing a Marine from a distance. There’s that one person who walks into Wal-Mart and sees how crowded it is, and five seconds later, they’re gone.
“What we want is to help you so you’re not afraid to do simple things like go grocery shopping,” said Mund. “Can you believe there are women who can’t even do that? Instead of being stuck in frustration, talk about it. I found out it was therapeutic for me to talk about my issues or thoughts with someone who understood me, someone who had been in my shoes.”
Women have served in one capacity or another in every major war in the nation’s history. Iraq and Afghanistan are the largest deployments of women to a combat zone. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says one out of every seven deployed service members is female, and as their numbers have increased, so have their responsibilities. They are no longer relegated to being spies or nurses. Now they find themselves in the heat of battle on a ground where the front lines are blurred.
“When I returned from Afghanistan it took a while for reality to set in,” said a member of the FET, whose name was withheld upon request. “I wasn’t myself. I was yelling at my bosses, and I couldn’t control my anger. I see now that I became a threat, and my only solace was talking to other females who had been in combat.
“The reason I didn’t seek help right away was because I felt embarrassed,” she continued. “What would I tell my boss? Would he understand or believe me? Would the doctor or counselor believe me? I was confident my job wouldn’t appreciate my counseling appointments interfering with my duties. All my fears were wiped away the second I said, ‘I need help coping with a few things.’”
Unit leaders will be informed in upcoming weeks with specific details on the women’s combat counseling and transition group. All female combat veterans are encouraged to attend to learn about combat stress and healing as well as to share experiences unique to women in the military. The group is open to veterans of all wars.