Women are integral members of the armed forces. Last year marked a milestone for female service members when the Defense Department lifted the ban on women in combat. The decision overturned a 1994 rule that restricted women from the front lines.
As more women assume combat roles, defense-related organizations are examining issues related to those roles. There’s increased attention on whether current policies effectively support women in combat positions, including policies on women’s mental health and well-being.
That was the goal of the “Women in Combat Symposium” hosted in late April. Service members, veterans and military health care professionals gathered to take part of an effort by Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE) and its partner organizations to help strengthen the mental health and resilience of women in combat. The event emphasized current mental health treatment programs, outreach and policies.
I listened to Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Health Protection and Readiness Dr. David J. Smith affirm the value of the symposium as an interchange of ideas and expertise.
“It’s about opportunity, and making sure standards are evidence-based with no gender bias,” he said. Smith paired those goals with identifying the roles leaders play in gender integration, refining women’s health issues, and education and training.
Discussion followed on operational performance, leadership, peer behaviors, and health and well-being. Participants drilled down on those issues during policy development exercises. Working groups identified key issues for women in combat roles that require attention.
Dr. Mark Bates, associate director, resilience and wellness at Deployment Health Clinical Center (DHCC), presented on Total Force Fitness and how mental health plays a key role in overall fitness. That led into other health and well-being presentations including:
- psychological resilience
- mental health
- deployment, military women and adolescent children
- family advocacy and domestic violence
- family structure issues
- nutritional factors
- reproductive health
- sex differences in drug metabolism
Capt. Wanda Finch, DHCC Access to Care division chief, led a discussion on psychological resilience.
“Resilience is a part of readiness,” she said. “However, there is limited guidance on resilience when it comes to women in combat and challenges with resilience program evaluations.” Finch identified data collection and the ability to keep it gender specific as part of research that merits further study.
Dr. Kate McGraw, associate director, psychological health clinical care at DHCC, steered the conversation toward mental health and well-being. (I learned that McGraw was one of the first female intercontinental ballistic missile launch officers in the U.S. Air Force.)
“Mental health is a key piece of the military operational environment,” said McGraw, adding that it relates specifically to women in combat situations. She said that researchers are interested in whether gender plays a role in how combat impacts mental health.
McGraw offered what I thought was an effective summary of what conference participants shared and accomplished.
“As women continue to integrate in greater numbers into the combat force, it’s important to take a close look at all the factors that may impact their physical and mental health – and ultimately their performance,” she said. “This symposium addressed critical issues our female service members may face in combat positions. We identified gaps and produced research and policy recommendations related to health and wellness, operational environments and leadership issues that we hope will enhance female service members’ ability to thrive as they integrate into their new combat roles across the Defense Department.”
Listening to some of the personal accounts of the participants, it’s apparent that health and well-being play a huge role before, during and after someone’s time in a combat environment. This symposium offered a progressive step toward shaping future policy.