Army women not only suffer more injuries than men during combat training, but the active-duty female soldiers also are stricken with significantly higher rates of mental health disorders.
The statistics come from a study conducted by the Army surgeon general last summer in conjunction with a bevy of analyses and experiments to judge women’s suitability for direct ground combat roles. It found, for example, that female soldiers suffer depression at more than double the rate of men and that one of the triggers is exposure to combat.
Still, the study concluded: “There is no medical basis to prohibit any [military occupational specialty] opening to females.”
The Obama administration announced Dec. 3 that it is opening all jobs in infantry, armor, artillery and special operations forces to women. The Pentagon then began releasing the services’ behind-the-scenes studies.
The Army numbers present a warning that if the Defense Department is going to usher a significant number of women into combat roles, which is its stated goal, the services will have to find better ways to prepare them physically and mentally.
In basic combat training, women are injured at twice the rate of men. For example, among the fastest groups of men and women in a 2-mile run, the male injury rate is 10 percent and the female rate is 26 percent. Women have a rate of stress factors during training four times higher than men.
Women also experience twice the injury rates of men when carrying 70 pounds of gear — about normal for an infantryman on patrol in combat.
Women’s injury rates are only slightly higher during deployments, but they have yet to join and deploy in direct land combat units.
The report says that “on average, female soldiers arrive at initial training relatively less fit than male soldiers.”
One idea to reduce women’s injury rates is to get them more physically fit, including the use of weight training. Another proposal is to boost iron levels, which have been shown to increase a woman’s ability to run faster.
“Bottom line,” the study states, “iron-deficient anemic female soldiers, when treated with supplements, run 1-2 minutes faster on 2 mile run.”
The June 24 study by Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho, the Army surgeon general, recommends that the service “implement multivitamin with iron program for females during intense training.”
Elaine Donnelly, who runs the Center for Military Readiness, called the results a “scandal” because the Pentagon knowingly is increasing physical risks for women who now will be less, not more, likely to join the military.
“This is a major scandal in the making,” Mrs. Donnelly said. “Here you have United States Army, with its own medical study pointing to the injury rates at least double compared to men. This is a consistent finding across the board. And they are proceeding anyway. And there is no indication that young women considering military service will be informed of the additional risk they will face over and above what men do. Once you sign up, they are going to be assigned to jobs beyond their strength anywhere the Army wants to send you.”
On the mental health front, or what the Army refers to as “behavioral health,” the disparity between men and women is striking.
Women have double the rate of the disorder of not adjusting to Army life. They have more than double the rate of depression, at 500 cases per 100,000 compared with 210 for men. They suffer a 50 percent higher rate of anxiety. They have about the same rate of post-traumatic stress disorder. Men have twice the alcohol abuse rate, at 200 per 100,000 soldiers.
“Incidence rates of many [behavior health] disorders are higher among female than male soldiers,” the study concludes.
As a cure, the study says, “programs exist to promote mitigation of risk and enhancement of protective factors through the soldier life cycle.”
Of the top 10 diagnoses that result in soldier hospitalizations, five are results of mental health disorders.
Women are most at risk of behavioral health disorders during career or life transitions, when exposed to combat or when they become victims of assault.
Women make up about 14 percent of the 1.3 million active force, with about 70,000 female soldiers.
The disorders could affect the force because the attrition rates can run as high as 62 percent for both men and women within a year of diagnosis.
Retired Army Col. James Griffith, a research psychologist, said many of the Army’s findings “parallel what we know about mental health between men and women in the general population.”
“For example, much more common among women than men are disorders of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress,” Mr. Griffith said. “Much more common among men are disorders of personality and alcohol/drug dependency.”
He said he is not aware of a study on how the disparity will affect combat performance. Not in the Army study are civilian women’s mental health rates and how they compare with those of military women.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was asked about the female injury rate when he announced his sweeping decision.
He answered: “There are a number of studies that indicated that. Again, that’s something that doesn’t suggest to me that women shouldn’t be admitted to those specialties, if they’re qualified. But it’s something that needs, that’s going to need to be taken into account in implementation. So these are real phenomena that affect gender, that are, rather, affected by gender and need to be taken into account in implementation.”
Healing the ‘rift’
Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, fell into the dicey situation of disagreeing with Mr. Carter and did not attend the Dec. 3 press conference.
As Marine commandant just a few months ago, Gen. Dunford opposed opening Marine infantry units to women because of injury rates that materialized in an experimental coed unit. The Corps concluded that this presented a risk to combat effectiveness and thus endangered more lives.
On Monday, Gen. Dunford appeared at a defense conference hosted by the Center for a New American Security.
Anna Mulrine, a reporter with the Christian Science Monitor, sharply questioned him and purported to speak for a number of Marine women.
She said, “I guess throughout this process there have been a number of women who got the message, as a Marine Corps, ‘We don’t want you in these jobs. You’re going to ruin everything. You’re going to ruin the camaraderie, the fun, the fighting, the effectiveness of the force.’”
Ms. Mulrine asked Gen. Dunford how he was going to heal this “rift.”
“I don’t actually believe that there is some huge rift,” Gen. Dunford said. “Be honest with you, it would break my heart if I thought this were true.
“Even in the recommendation I made, we were going to open up all but a very few [military occupational specialties]where the data indicated there were some challenges we had to overcome. The secretary has determined we will overcome those in implementation. And that’s where I’m at right now.”
He added: “In terms of the value of women in the Marine Corps, I think the record speaks for itself over the last 10 or 12 years, and we certainly trumpeted that. There may be in Washington, D.C., some perception that women in the Marine Corps don’t feel valued. I’ve spent a hell of a lot of time with Marines, and I think I can sniff out BS when I see it and I don’t actually think that’s true. I think Marines are proud to be Marines and the women who’ve had different opinions than me have been quite vocal in sharing those with me in a very professional way. I don’t think there’s a rift to heal.”