Melissa Lawless spent 10 and a half years in the U.S. Marine Corps. Much of it was on the front lines in the Middle East. Lawless was part of the first group of women in the Marines to be attached to ground combat troops in 2005.
Her specialty? Chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Anti-terrorism, in other words.
She’s proud to be among the first women to have gone out on foot patrol in Fallujah.
“They call the Marines the few and the proud,” she says. “But they call the women the fewer and the prouder.”
The price for her pride has been a costly one, though. Sleeping in tents directly next to where her colleagues traded shells and bombs with Iraqi fighters, being trained to drive as fast as possible to outrun snipers, and living with the reality that she might at any point walk into a building and get trapped in there left have her with a lingering case of post-traumatic stress disorder.
PTSD has been identified long enough to have gone through its share of monikers – shell shock; delayed stress syndrome.
But PTSD in female, frontline combat vets is still a new and emerging science. Women simply have not been assigned to combat roles for very long.
“There’s just not that much of a history with female combat PTSD,” says Stanford endocrinologist Robert Sapolsky. “We need more research.”
What therapists and psychologists do know is that while the symptoms of PTSD are generally the same for men and women, the different sexes tend to present differently. One gender-neutral symptom is Lawless’ nagging stress with being in a room where she can’t see all the doors.
“You think of a way to subdue everybody in that room as soon as you walk in,” she says. “That’s a PTSD thing.”
So is driving too fast and too aggressively in everyday traffic, which Lawless has also done. In the Marine Corps, she was trained to run to the problem and address it, with as much force as the situation required. When there’s something to get away from, though, you’re taught to get away fast.
It’s been hard to unplug that from her psyche, she says.
Lucy Underwood, a licensed professional counselor based in McKinney, says Lawless’ symptoms are pretty textbook. She's worked with numerous women coping with military-related PTSD, which she describes as an alarm that doesn’t shut off.
Also gender-neutral, Underwood says, is that PTSD patients tend to try to address the issue through obsessive behaviors, like exercising too much or overeating. Anything to stay ahead of the panic attack that could strike anywhere, anytime, without warning.
There are, however, some notable differences between men and women when it comes to PTSD. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD, women in the military are more than twice as likely as men to develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Once they have it, women are also a lot more likely to turn their pain inward. Anger in men becomes depression in women. Aggression in men often becomes self-cutting in women.
And while men suffering through PTSD tend to turn to hard chemicals, women, if they seek solace in substances, overwhelmingly opt for alcohol.
Lawless says she drank a lot for about two years before she realized it was getting the better of her. She went to the VA for treatment, eventually landing in Bonham, where she’s taken advantage of programs at the Sam Rayburn Memorial Veteran’s Center.
She’s also found a support group outside the VA, a group of fellow PTSD-survivor vets connected with Bunker House (see story at KETR.org), a privately owned haven for military vets with PTSD and substance abuse issues.
This group support model is part of something especially important for women surviving PTSD, says Linda Denke, director of nursing research at the University of Texas-Southwestern.
“It's most important for women vets, and women in particular, to have a network and be able to share,” Denke says.
Interestingly, says Underwood, the Marine Corps offers a particular oddity when it comes to PTSD in men versus women. Women who have had a prior traumatic experience going into the Marine Corps, she says, are far more likely to develop PTSD based on their experiences in-service. That prior trauma is often sexual in nature, from ceaseless unwanted attention to actual physical assault.
Lawless entered the Marine Corps in 2003 having survived a traumatic home life. She didn’t elaborate beyond saying she had “a rough childhood.”
Men, however, are very much the opposite. Men going into the Marine Corps having survived a prior trauma “seem to have found their … support system as a Marine,” Underwood says.
The discipline and the Marine Corps code of toughness in the face of danger, in other words, tends to be something men respond to and actually can find helpful, she says. But that’s not how it is for women. Even tough ones like Melissa Lawless.
Half a decade removed from the theater of combat, Lawless is effectively homeless, but is trying to secure a place to live that’s not a VA treatment center. She might have it sooner than later, if Bunker House founder Jon Hager gets his women-only home set up in Bonham, like he wants to.
He has a waiting list of women who could use the supportive quiet.
While she recovers, or at least learns to manage her twin burdens – alcoholism and PTSD share the unfortunate fact that neither is ever fully cured, Sapolsky says – Lawless is pursuing a master’s in disaster management through American Military University. She already has one in criminal justice, but thinks learning about emergency management is her path.
In general, she’s pretty optimistic.
“I don’t see why I couldn’t do anything I wanted to do,” she says. “Right now, my thinking is, the sky’s the limit.”
Her advice to anyone who might need help?
“Don’t be too tough or too proud to say ‘I need help,’” she says.