For These Women Veterans, It Wasn't Combat Trauma That Led To PTSD

Transition
Diane Smith (left), Alvina Wimbish and Connie Davis, meet at the Garden State Diner in Wrightstown where they are among the very few women who attend a post-traumatic stress disorder peer support group for military veterans
Photo via Janet Cicchini/YouTube

Connie Davis was afraid to go into the bathroom. Fire escapes and stairwells at the Air Force bases where she was stationed also stirred fear.


Enemies within the ranks could be lurking in such secluded spots.

But Airman Davis, who started as a mechanic after joining the Air Force in 1974, said she was sexually assaulted despite her efforts to avoid places where she might be vulnerable.

She is not alone. One in four women and one in 100 men who receive care from Veterans Affairs report they are victims of military sexual trauma, also known as MST, according to the VA.

Davis, 64, said she knew that if she reported her assault, there would be retaliation. “You bury it. You move on,” she said in a recent interview at the Garden State Diner, where she met up with fellow veterans Diane Smith, a former Marine sergeant, and Alvina Wimbish, who was an Air Force staff sergeant.

All three have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. For them, solace comes from belonging to an unusual peer support group of veterans. The group meets weekly at the diner, near the Joint Base, in Wrightstown, Pennsylvania. Nearly all of the 60 veterans who attend are male, and at the root of their PTSD generally is what you might expect: combat trauma.

The group includes five women. Two of the three who were interviewed cited sexual assault, along with exposure to harsh conditions in boot camp, as events that left a lasting scar. The third said she, too, had lived in fear of sexual assault while in the service. None have found it easy to talk about it. The men share their experiences with the group, the women tend not to.

The three women weren’t diagnosed until a few years ago, when their military experiences came up during therapy they sought for other problems. After leaving the service, all three worked at the mail processing plant in Hamilton, N.J., the target of an anthrax attack soon after 9/11. That terrifying experience, a car accident, a physical assault and personal tragedies also contributed to the PTSD that they say started when they were on active duty.

Davis recalled the humiliation she experienced when her ex-husband pushed her to tell her superior officer about being sexually assaulted. She said the officer told her the unwanted attention she received was her fault. “He made it seem like I was a whore, and I did nothing wrong,” she said, her voice rising in anger.

Smith, of Browns Mills, said she too was sexually assaulted and sexually harassed while she was in the Marines, between 1978 and 1984. She did not report it. “They would say you’re just whining, you’re being a girl. And you know you must never, never cry. You just act like it doesn’t bother you,” she said.

In a survey released by the Pentagon last year, about 14,900 service members, male and female, reported they had experienced some form of sexual assault. The Pentagon also said six out of 10 reported retaliation after filing a complaint.

Lori Maas, manager of the women’s program at the Philadelphia VA Medical Center, said individual therapy and group programs are offered to women with PTSD and MST at clinics in the city and South Jersey. “The role of women in the military, until recently, was not in combat. But the war is still present for them: They are in the combat zones, and while they may not have the rifle, they are being exposed to traumatic events that are pretty significant,” she said.

Smith, 57, said she feels better after she goes to the peer support group at the diner, just being among veterans, male and female, all struggling to make sense of what happened to them.

The men have welcomed them, she said, and the women enjoy the camaraderie.

“We all went through some awful mess in the military.  No one here wants to hurt you. … The group gives you a sense of being, that you’re not the only one,” Smith said.

Until the interviews, Davis and Smith had not even disclosed to each other the sexual assaults they had endured in the military. “The stereotype of military women is they are either lesbians or whores,” Davis said, shaking her head.

All three women were married and had children while in the service, but still felt misunderstood, labeled.

At one of the group meetings, one of the men reminded the others to curb their swearing because there are “ladies in the room.” Smith, who has five children and five grandchildren, said that made her feel respected.

Tony Capone, a retired social worker who counsels the group, said military women have the same anger issues and nightmares as the men. PTSD also causes anxiety and flashbacks, and can lead to suicide.

He has counseled women with MST and others who witnessed death and destruction. He also has helped battlefield triage nurses whose job is to decide “who gets treated and who doesn’t, and then they have to hold the hands of those who don’t get treatment and watch them die,” Capone said.

Local veterans formed the group Capone leads at the diner two years after the VA disbanded its own peer support group at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. The vets didn’t want to travel to Philadelphia where the VA started a new group. About 200 vets have signed up for the group that meets at the diner, and about 60 drop in each week.

Wimbish, who started as a singer with an Air Force band in the early 1980s, said one of her most terrifying military experiences was when she was deployed during Desert Storm, to a Middle East location to support an aircraft-refueling mission. On the way there, she said she was handed an M-16, though she had not received training in how to use it.  “I was scared to death,” she said.

A few months later, she said, she and six others in her unit were left behind at a Middle East aircraft hangar for nearly a week after most of the others troops were evacuated.

The pilot who came for them “laughed and said we forgot about you,” she said.  The unit had barricaded the hangar doors with furniture for protection and slept on desks.  “It wasn’t funny. It still hurts,” she said.

For Davis, there is the memory of a training drill at boot camp that turned fatal.  She saw a recruit who was running in front of her collapse and die.  “I blamed myself — I thought maybe I was too slow to help him,” she said.

For Smith, there was the racism she encountered off the base when she was stationed in Georgia. When she would ride her bicycle, some motorists would yell racial epithets and one passenger tried to knock her off the bike.

Davis said she copes now by attending the group sessions, volunteering at church, and painting.  One portrait is labeled “Silent pain.”

“All of us just try to bury it all,” Davis said.  “But we probably shouldn’t.”

———

©2017 Philly.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

WATCH NEXT:

A Marine wanted for killing his mother's boyfriend reportedly escaped police by hiding inside an RV they'd spent hours searching before towing it to a parking lot, where he escaped under the cover of darkness.

It wasn't until more than two weeks later authorities finally caught up to Michael Brown at his mom's home, which was the scene of the crime.

Brown stuffed himself into a tight spot in his camper during an hours-long search of the vehicle on Nov. 10, according to NBC affiliate WSLS in Virginia. A day earlier, cops said Brown fatally shot his mother's boyfriend, Rodney Brown. The AWOL Marine remained on the lam until Nov. 27, where he was finally apprehended without incident.

Read More Show Less

No motive is yet known for last week's Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard shooting tragedy, which appears to have been a random act of violence in which the sailor who fatally shot two civilian workers and himself did not know them and did not plan his actions ahead of time, shipyard commander Capt. Greg Burton said in an "All Hands" message sent out Friday.

Machinist's Mate Auxiliary Fireman Gabriel Antonio Romero of San Antonio, an armed watch-stander on the attack submarine USS Columbia, shot three civilian workers Dec. 4 and then turned a gun on himself while the sub rested in dry dock 2 for a major overhaul, the Navy said.

"The investigation continues, but there is currently no known motive and no information to indicate the sailor knew any of the victims," Burton said.

Read More Show Less
A projectile is fired during North Korea's missile tests in this undated picture released by North Korea's Central News Agency (KCNA) on November 28, 2019. (KCNA via Reuters)

SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea said it had successfully conducted another test at a satellite launch site, the latest in a string of developments aimed at "restraining and overpowering the nuclear threat of the U.S.", state news agency KCNA reported on Saturday.

The test was conducted on Friday at the Sohae satellite launch site, KCNA said, citing a spokesman for North Korea's Academy of Defence Science, without specifying what sort of testing occurred.

Read More Show Less

Since the Washington Post first published the "Afghanistan papers," I have been reminded of a scene from "Apocalypse Now Redux" in which Army Col. Walter Kurtz reads to the soldier assigned to kill him two Time magazine articles showing how the American people had been lied to about Vietnam by both the Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon administrations.

In one of the articles, a British counterinsurgency expert tells Nixon that "things felt much better and smelled much better" during his visit to Vietnam.

"How do they smell to you, soldier?" Kurtz asks.

Read More Show Less
Erik Prince arrives for the New York Young Republican Club Gala at The Yale Club of New York City in Manhattan in New York City, New York, U.S., November 7, 2019. (REUTERS/Jeenah Moon)

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Erik Prince, the controversial private security executive and prominent supporter of U.S. President Donald Trump, made a secret visit to Venezuela last month and met Vice President Delcy Rodriguez, one of socialist leader Nicolas Maduro's closest and most outspoken allies, according to five sources familiar with the matter.

Read More Show Less