Women at War: Understanding How Women Veterans Cope with Combat and Military Sexual Trauma


Mattocks, Kristin M., Sally G. Haskell, Erin E. Krebs, Amy C. Justice, Elizabeth M. Yano and Cynthia Brandt. 2012. "Women at War: Understanding How Women Veterans Cope with Combat and Military Sexual Trauma." Social Science Medicine 74 (4): 537-45.

Authors: Kristin M. Mattocks, Sally G. Haskell, Erin E. Krebs, Amy C. Justice, Elizabeth M. Yano, Cynthia Brandt


The wars in Iraq (Operation Iraqi Freedom, OIF) and Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom, OEF) have engendered a growing population of U.S. female veterans, with women now comprising 15% of active U.S. duty military personnel. Women serving in the military come under direct fire and experience combat related injuries and trauma, and are also often subject to in-service sexual assaults and sexual harassment. However, little is known regarding how women veterans cope with these combat and military sexual trauma experiences once they return from deployment. To better understand their experiences, we conducted semi-structured interviews with nineteen OEF/OIF women veterans between January-November 2009. Women veterans identified stressful military experiences and post-deployment reintegration problems as major stressors. Stressful military experiences included combat experiences, military sexual trauma, and separation from family. Women had varying abilities to address and manage stressors, and employed various cognitive and behavioral coping resources and processes to manage their stress.



“Military sexual trauma (MST) is the term used by the Department of Veterans Affairs to refer to sexual assault or repeated, threatening sexual harassment that occurred while the veteran was in the military. Recent evidence from OEF/OIF veterans suggests that 15.1% of women and 0.7% of men reported military sexual trauma when screened (Kimerling et al., 2010).” (Mattocks et al., 538)

“Often, women spoke of how sexual harassment or sexual coercion was tied to opportunities for promotion. Women who were promoted were assumed to have performed sexual favors for  those in charge.” (Mattocks et al., 540)

“Women identified four major behavioral coping strategies they used to cope with post-deployment stress: binging and purging, compulsive spending, over-exercising, and prescription drug abuse.” (Mattocks et al., 542)

Use of cognitive avoidance coping and isolating themselves from others when returning from deployment. (Mattocks et al., 542-543)

“An important theme echoed across many of the interviews was the sense that women’s experiences in war were not widely understood or recognized upon return to the United States. As noted in other studies (Mulhall, 2009), because women’s roles and experiences in the military are often minimized or misunderstood by family, friends, and healthcare professionals, women themselves tend to minimize their contributions. Several women in the study indicated that they did not feel their physical and mental health ailments were worthy of VA care. In some cases women who needed treatment for their war-related health problems chose not to utilize their VA healthcare benefits, and either received no treatment for their problems or sought private care for their problems.” (Mattocks et al., 542)

“It is unclear why women in the study did not seem to feel as though they deserved services provided by the VA, or why they did….Conversely, women veterans who may have experienced some form of military sexual trauma may be unwilling to utilize VA services, for fear of encountering the same types of individuals who may have perpetrated the sexual trauma. Finally, many women veterans who are returning to the United States after months of deployment may feel that, despite their own personal medical or mental health needs, the focus needs to shift away from their own personal needs to the needs of their children and other family members.” (Mattocks et al., 543-544)

“First, because some of the stressors that women have experienced during military service are related to military sexual trauma, women veterans need to have access to gender-specific mental health and substance abuse counseling. Currently, the VA offers nearly 100 substance abuse programs with specialized services targeted at women veterans. However, because not all women veterans seek VA care for these problems and conditions, the VA should establish collaborative relationships with state and community-level mental health and substance abuse agencies to provide access to needed care.” (Mattocks et al., 544)

Topics: Armed Conflict, Combatants, Female Combatants, Gender, Women, Health, Trauma, Military Forces & Armed Groups, Militaries, Sexual Violence, SV against women Regions: Africa, MENA, Americas, North America, Asia, South Asia Countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, United States of America

Year: 2012

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