Stephanie Shannon was just 20 years old when she landed in Saudi Arabia in a tan camouflage uniform still crisp around the edges. She’d enlisted in the Army in November 1989, motivated by the opportunity for a career and seduced by the promise of learning disciplined bravery. Just nine months after she entered basic training, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein mobilized his forces in an attempt to invade and annex Kuwait, a tiny oil-rich nation southeast of Iraq. Shannon, the latest soldier in a family of military men, was ready.
She took a 33-hour flight to the eastern edge of Saudi Arabia, and the work began quickly once she landed. Shannon was tasked with trucking munitions across the desert and into battle, fighting off enemy ambushes and literal shifting sands along the way. She quickly picked up her peers’ nonchalant mood around fighting and death (“You can’t care about it too much,” she says). What she couldn’t get used to was the loneliness of being a woman — one that constantly attracted the eyes, jeers and prods of male soldiers around her.
“There were 16 of us, and something like 500 of them,” Shannon says. Each day brought another joke about what a man would do to her, propositions for sex and comments about her body. She couldn’t tell if the words bothered her more or less than the groping. Late at night, she stared at the ceiling and reminded herself that she was lucky — unlike some women she knew who had been raped or attacked. But during the day, she more often than not found herself avoiding friendly interactions with men. She even wore more layers to cover her figure, despite the Saudi heat.
Complaining and fighting back only drew more attention to her, including an intimidating meeting with her superiors in which they accused her of disobeying orders. She couldn’t shake the feeling that her sergeant had thrown her the worst jobs, at the worst times, to try and break her down as retribution. Sometimes, that meant a 12-hour shift by herself on a patrol. Other times, it meant brutal physical labor. In one instance, after she hurt her back tossing water containers from a truck, Shannon grew angry as she wondered why her commanding officer made a 5-foot-3, 150-pound soldier do a job that men twice her size had been assigned.
“Every day, someone is messing with you. It causes a wound and the wound can’t heal because you can’t talk about the trauma and you can’t report it. You end up feeling like an outcast,” she recalls. “It became clear my leaders were looking out for someone else besides me. So I just endured it.”
It would be 20 years after her stint in the desert that Shannon first heard a doctor say the words “post-traumatic stress syndrome,” a diagnosis spurred by the harassment she endured, the stress of war and the pain of Gulf War Illness, a mysterious ailment that affects service members who deployed to Iraq in 1991. The diagnosis in 2011 explained why she had stumbled through so many days in a thick fog of depression and anxiety after leaving the military in 1998 with a newborn son and an interest in social work. “Throughout that time, I was constantly suicidal. It didn’t take much to make me think about it,” Shannon says. “The one thing that kept me back from it was my son. I didn’t have anyone who could take care of him. So I stayed.”
Like Shannon, tens of thousands of veterans contemplate suicide every year, and VA estimates suggest more than 7,000 veterans die from suicide annually — about 20 people a day. The majority of these deaths are men, with the suicide rate about double for male veterans compared to their female peers. Yet while the overall rate of veterans killing themselves has steadily risen since 9/11, grossly outpacing civilian suicides, female veterans have seen a 62 percent increase in suicides between 2001 and 2015 versus a 30 percent increase with their male peers. And compared to civilians, women in the military are 250 percent more likely to kill themselves — a stunning statistic given that the suicide rate gap between male veterans and civilian men is only about 18 percent.
The increased suicides come even as the country’s active-duty military is smaller than it’s been in the last 20 years, with 1.3 million troops. And while the number of women in the military has increased over time (composing 15 percent of the military today, versus 11 percent in 1990), that population change doesn’t explain why so many more young female veterans are killing themselves.
For those working to support veterans as they transition from military service back to the civilian world, the boom in the female suicide rate is more than an anomaly — it’s a crisis. President Barack Obama signed a bill in 2016 that called for more resources for female veterans, but change is coming slowly. Meanwhile, the experts who work with these women directly, many of whom are veterans themselves, say that the biggest factor may be how isolated women feel in a workplace that’s hyper-masculine — and frankly, rife with sexual assault.
About one in four female service members report having been assaulted or coerced for sexual acts in some way, according to research from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Much has been written about the aftereffects for these women, including the fact that sexual assault is a leading predictor of homelessness for female veterans. It’s also an influence for suicide, with a 2016 VA study finding that military sexual trauma significantly raises the risk of a veteran attempting it. “People who don’t know they need help or how to get it, they struggle to get any momentum going with basic benefits. I needed a homelessness coordinator at the VA to straighten everything out for me when I was at my lowest point,” Shannon says. “It’s isolating to be broke and mentally drained.”
The women with the worst statistical outcome are those who live in rural areas and do not or cannot seek services at their local VA office: They’ve seen a 98 percent increase in suicide rate since 2001. But challenges with access have long been a problem for male and female veterans alike, due to long waitlists and complicated screening processes that can take years to complete. Even worse, women run into inadequate services (like a lack of basic mammograms) or uncomfortable situations such as group therapy with a roomful of men. “It’s much easier for male veterans who need inpatient health care to get a slot,” Retired Navy Capt. Lory Manning, now a director of government affairs with SWAN, told Rewire.News. “Not all VA facilities have slots for women to have inpatient health care.”
Even beyond medical treatment, female veterans struggle to find venues to share their struggles while feeling safe from male judgment. Catherine, a 20-year Navy veteran who is now an expert on mental health (and who asked to use a pseudonym to protect her professional relationships within the military), says that the isolation felt within the military can get worse in civilian life. Veterans groups like the American Legion or AmVets tend to be filled with men, which brings many women back to square one in terms of feeling out of place. “Even coming out, you see that the resources and groups are all male-dominated. That can be really uncomfortable to navigate,” she says. “Women veterans work together to make things better, like by sharing a good resource if we find it. But many women can’t identify that support group. If you move back home after deployment, maybe you find support from people you already knew. If you move to a new city, however, it’s really hard.”
The social isolation comes in layers, often with an undercurrent of sexism, even from civilians. “I’ve had people get angry and demand proof that I served. Then ask all these condescending follow-up questions to try to call me out,” writes one woman on Reddit. “The dude at Dunkin’ Donuts saw my USAA card (bank for service members and their families) and asked me what my dad did in the military… I told him I was in and he was furious, didn’t believe me, schooled me on Stolen Valor and then angrily gave me my coffee. I was still on active duty.”
There are other factors to consider when asking why female veterans are committing suicide at increasing rates. Research suggests that traumatic childhood events, including emotional and sexual abuse, are much more common in service members than the civilian public. Lower educational achievement is also linked to increased suicide rates, and the majority of enlisted troops only have a high school degree.
As for the 250 percent gap between female veteran suicides and civilian female suicides? It may be because of a much more concrete reason: Women who have served are trained in firearms and have access to them far more frequently than their civilian counterparts. Studies show the latter more frequently use hanging or overdoses to attempt suicide, whereas veterans, like their civilian male counterparts, end up with guns in their hands. “Clinical intuition indicates that women who have had training with firearms, and work in an environment that’s dangerous and exposed combat, are more likely to use violent methods to commit suicide,” Steve Xenakis, a psychiatrist who served in the Army for 28 years, told government watchdog organization Pogo. “In a sense, the military is an equalizing and egalitarian environment that offers opportunity, but with unintended consequences.”
Experts agree that the key to solving this crisis is trying to find women who served and funneling them toward collectives that can either help them with their trauma or use their experiences to recruit and help others. Catherine notes that female veterans often try to fall into the social role expected of a woman — having kids, taking care of a family or spouse, caring for aging parents, etc. In doing so, she says, women can leave their own needs behind. “And if you have a friend who’s died by suicide, or if suicide is close to you, it can feel more and more like an option,” she adds. “In my experience, women have a tough time asking for help when they transition to civilian life. As a community, we need to be asking them if we can help.”
That’s why Shannon, now 49, formed the Michigan Women Veterans Empowerment organization, which travels around the state to recruit members and hold conferences to bring female veterans together. She isn’t sure whether the VA will reform quickly enough to help more women, or whether legislation to help protect women in the military will pass anytime soon. And so, she’s done the only thing she could think of — taken matters into her own hands. “We need people with boots on the ground on the outside,” she says. “Female vets aren’t visible enough, and the communities that can help them aren’t either.”