What happens when former U.S. service men or women find themselves behind bars, trying to process hidden traumas after serving in the military?
For incarcerated female veterans, the traumas they face may be doubled due to suffering from abuse prior to serving and while on duty in the military, according to a National Resource Center on Justice Involved Women report titled Responding to the Needs of Women Veterans Involved in the Criminal Justice System.
The criminal justice system and other human service agencies that fail to identify women under their care as veterans can create barriers for women seeking necessary help and services, said the report.
“Remember, veterans have learned not to be weak or to dis- play weakness. They have been trained as warriors and do not want to be seen as victims,” said the report.
Women veterans who return home from active duty have very little or no time to readjust to civilian life, the report said.
“Military women with children are less likely to have the same support networks as military men,” said the report. “Single mothers and women veterans whose husbands are still serving on active duty must immediately begin caring for their children.”
These same women can suffer from the same combat related trauma as their male counterparts, such as being fired upon by enemy forces, rockets, sniper fire, and seeing others killed or wounded.
Women veterans have a higher rate of unemployment compared to male veterans, according to the report. Single mothers or women veterans who have experienced military sexual trauma (MST) experience homelessness at a higher rate than civilian women.
One in five female veterans has experienced military sex- ual trauma compared to one in 100 male veterans, according to a study by the Veteran’s Health Administration. MST is defined as experiences of sexual assault or harassment while on active military duty.
In a sample of U.S. Navy recruits, 15% of new male and female recruits reported traumatic histories. The women recruits reported higher percentages of past childhood traumas of physical or sexual abuse, the report revealed.
In the U.S. Army, 22% of women stated that they used alcohol as a way to cope with stress in their lives, reported the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
This substance abuse can lead to anxiety disorders, depression, and PTSD. With- out proper treatment these women can spiral down into unemployment, homeless- ness, or the criminal justice system.
These dynamics should be considered when working with female veterans in the justice system, noted the report. If the women had a negative experience with the military, it can cause them to refrain from seeking help from the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA).
“Some women in the military may have been ostracized, isolated or punished or reporting abuse,” said the report. “Since these women were assaulted while serving in the military, it is unlikely that they were able to elicit support from their loved ones.”
The full effects of these past traumas, prior to entering the military or being re-traumatized while in the military, are still being researched.
“We need to understand that the issues facing women veterans in the justice system may be complex as a result of untreated trauma, mental illness, and substance abuse, and their unique military experiences,” acknowledged the researchers.
Even though women veterans make up a small population in state and federal prison, they do have high rates of cooccurring disorders among women veterans in general. While incarcerated, more may attempt suicide or engage in self-harm than other women in the general population, according to the report.
By screening and identifying the military status of the women who enter prison, the criminal justice system can provide the necessary resources for women recovering from these traumatic experiences or suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD.
Currently, the California Institution for Women (CIW), a state prison, has the Veterans in Prison (VIP Post 1) program for the vets who live there.
“Women veterans may have strengths that can be mobilized to mitigate risk for future criminal behavior,” concluded the report. “Women in the military often have achieved higher education levels and have a steady job history when compared to other justice-involved women.”