November 13, 2006
Women may miss out on PTSD screening
Hospitals urged for better post-deployment care

By Rick Maze
Staff writer

Every veterans’ hospital should have a full-time manager for women’s programs, and every female service member should receive better post-deployment counseling about potential health issues, according to recommendations from a symposium on federal programs for combat veterans.

One particular concern is that because women don’t serve in ground combat units, they may be overlooked for post-traumatic stress disorder, which can develop not just from serving in a combat zone but also from such factors as sexual harassment or sexual assault, according to conferees at the recent National Symposium for the Needs for Young Veterans.

Recommendations from the symposium, sponsored by AmVets, are being distilled into an action plan for legislative and regulatory change. The group met in a Chicago suburb in October, making recommendations that are expected to be included in a larger plan prepared for Congress to consider next year.

A former Army National Guard woman was cited as an example of the possible problems facing female veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Staff Sgt. Keri Christensen said she sees her 15-year career in the Wisconsin National Guard coming to an end because of a sexual harassment complaint she made in 2005 while in Kuwait.

Christensen, a member of the 158th Transportation Company, was recovering from a broken foot that was run over by one of her units’ heavy vehicles when a senior enlisted member began sexually harassing her, she said in an interview.

She filed a complaint, which led to her being arrested, charged with illegal consumption of alcohol, court-martialed and reduced in rank to E-4, she said.

Her enlistment is about to end, Christensen said, and she plans to get out, disillusioned with military justice and suffering from physical and mental disabilities as a result of her 11 months in theater in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The only question, she said, is whether she will get an honorable, general or dishonorable discharge.

“I was a good soldier, and I really wanted to complete 20 years of service. I never expected this,” she said.

“We were all told, in formation, that anyone busted in rank in theater would get the rank back within one year. My one year came and passed in October, and I was told the rules had changed,” she said.

Even worse, she said, is that the man she accused of sexually harassing her — whose name is not being used because her story could not be independently verified — has been promoted and is one of the people who would review her request to have her rank restored.

Christensen receives psychiatric care from the Department of Veterans Affairs to help her cope with the image of dead service members she saw at the morgue on a daily basis in Kuwait when isolated from her unit. She stayed there, mostly alone, while her allegations and the charges against her were investigated, she said.

The counseling, she said, involves her dealing with the sight of dead bodies and from the trauma she says she suffered when her superior made frequent references to her body parts and to the possibility of having sex with her.

Her case is one that shows a potential link between sexual trauma and post-traumatic stress, said a working group that discussed the issue at the symposium. The group suggested requiring sexual assault response coordinators to brief service members prior to deployment; ensuring trained experts in sexual trauma are deployed with units; and setting up procedures so that any medical evidence of a sexual assault gathered by criminal investigators also is provided to service members.

Christensen, who is married and has a son, said she didn’t get help.

“The people who were supposed to be looking out for me didn’t,” she said. “Immediately after I filed a sexual harassment complaint, I was arrested in the middle of the night and charged with a violation of Article 1, the wrongful consumption of alcohol.

“I was isolated from my unit, and told by my platoon sergeant that if I persisted in the sexual harassment complaint that she would charge me with adultery,” a charge she says was untrue.

Her husband is not in the military and has been supportive throughout her ordeal, Christensen said.