Clinician’s Corner: Journal Highlights Health Needs of Women in Combat

Posted by Kate McGraw, Ph.D., Deputy Director of the Deployment Health Clinical Center on February 23, 2016

We are living in a time of great change. Change offers us many opportunities for positive growth. At the same time, change may create unanswerable questions, generate heated discussions or even produce anxiety in those impacted most by the change.

Military Integration Changes

The Defense Department has seen a number of significant changes related to structure and mission. Notably, in 2013, the secretary of defense rescinded the 1994 Direct Combat Definition and Assignment Rule, which had previously closed many combat-related military occupational specialties to female service members. This decision raised questions about the best ways to integrate women into these positions and focused attention on the physical and psychological health needs of all military females.

In the spring of 2014, the Consortium for Health and Military Performance (CHAMP) and the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs hosted the Women in Combat Symposium. More than 90 policy makers, researchers and service members from across the Defense Department examined women-in-combat issues related to fitness and health, operational, environmental, community and cultural factors. DCoE helped shape the symposium’s content and dialogue. My colleagues and I facilitated group discussions about the psychological health needs, resilience, and overall well-being of women in combat positions.

Special Journal Supplement Focuses on Women in Combat

The contributions of all who participated in the Women in Combat Symposium and the valuable dialogue it generated culminated in a January 2016 special supplement issue of “Military Medicine” about women in combat (PDF). The supplement’s articles feature topics related to women’s performance and various aspects of health and wellness, including nutrition, physical fitness, reproductive health, psychological health, and substance use.

The authors also provide recommendations for future policy and research based on current gaps identified during the symposium. Broadening the role of women in combat is a major change that will impact the brave and honorable women and men who serve our nation and the Defense Department mission well into the future.

We Need More Research

At the CHAMP symposium, I delivered a keynote speech and discussed the importance of social support for women who integrate into previously all-male combat units, as well as the negative impact of ostracism. We need to consider the psychological health needs of female service members who serve in combat situations, especially as women integrate into units where they are the first females to serve.

We also need more research to better understand if there are gender differences in the mental health needs of combatants, and if so, how those differences may impact both the individual and the mission. Additional research can help determine how to best support the psychological health and readiness of our combat troops, while keeping potential gender differences in mind.