Women, War, And PTSD

Laura Kasinof | Washington Monthly | November 1, 2013

Are female warriors more likely to be traumatized by combat?

Former U.S. Army medic Jennifer Pacanowski’s speech was punctuated by loud laughter, even when the topic of conversation turned quite dark. “I’m looking for bombs,” she said, driving south on the New Jersey Turnpike, “so if anyone tries to blow up this roadway, I’ll be ready for it.” She laughed again, acknowledging the ridiculousness of her statement but unable to let go of the tricks her mind was playing.

Pacanowski, who’s thirty-three now, served in 2004 as an ambulance driver in Iraq, where she accompanied military convoys from the Al Asad Air Base in western Anbar Province, one of the most violent regions in a violent war. Despite serving in a “noncombat” role, Pacanowski often found herself in the line of enemy fire, witnessing firsthand the carnage of fatal roadside bombs or being forced to take cover during sniper attacks.

When she left the Army two years later, Pacanowski struggled to reintegrate back home and instead retreated to a log cabin in the Poconos, where she spent years “drinking too much,” she said, and rarely went outside. All she “wanted was to feel numb,” she told me. “How could I come home and not feel safe? At war, I wasn’t frightened by the mortars. Then I came back to America and couldn’t leave my house. It didn’t make sense to me at the time. I preferred to be angry and live in denial.” In 2007, Pacanowski was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.