Women in war: The new combatants

By Penny F. Pierce, Ph.D., RN
March 1, 2009 - Last updated: May 31, 2011

The inevitable truth is that the face of the American soldier is increasingly likely to be female. Although women have always served alongside their male counterparts, they were more likely to be in supportive roles stationed behind enemy lines out of harm’s way.

The Persian Gulf War (PGW) was a critical turning point for women in the military because of the large number of women deployed (40,793 served in the theater of operations), the first time mothers of dependent children were activated and the emergence of women into traditional male war-fighting roles.

Media coverage of the tearful separations of mothers and their children alongside women loading sidewinder missiles on combat aircraft stirred social debate regarding the role of women in combat and the readiness of the American people to see their daughters wounded, taken prisoner of war or killed.

Between 1993 and 1996, the Department of Defense removed obstacles to the recruitment, training and assignments to over 260,000 positions previously closed to women. In the current war in Iraq, approximately 10 percent are women and they are fully engaged in military operations with the exception of direct combat arms.

The yet untold story of military women is unfolding as we learn how they are experiencing wartime deployments, separation from their families and children, service in hostile and austere environments and the difficult tasks of re-integration, recovery and restoration.

Fundamentally, the paramount question is one of gender and the degree to which there may be unique social, psychological and biological differences in the ways women fare under the extreme stressors of war as well as the strategies available to them to cope with a life disrupted by wartime service.

Since the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, we have conducted a program of research at the University of Michigan that has been focused primarily on the wartime experiences and outcomes of women in the Air Force and more recently including female soldiers in the Army serving in Iraq and Afghanistan (funded by the TriService Nursing Research Program).

Our goals have been to address the influence of various wartime stressors including deployment, combat exposure, occupational demands, family separation and various wartime experiences on women’s physical and emotional health as well as their willingness to remain in military service. We have learned a great deal about women in war as they deploy far from home and live and work under the most extreme and life-threatening circumstances imaginable.

Issues involving wartime stressors include combat exposure, work and family conflict, extraordinary work demands and unique organizational considerations. All potentially impact the physical and mental health of all military members generally and perhaps impact women in distinct ways. For example, there is some evidence that women do perceive wartime stressors differently than do men and there are gender differences in the response to stressors including posttraumatic stress disorder as well as other physical and mental health issues.

Specifically, women who reported sexual assault history also reported greater nonsexual combat exposure during their deployment suggesting that prior assault may link to more vulnerability to other life-threatening exposures.

Our studies have found that women who are younger, in the junior ranks or deployed to the theater (vs. elsewhere) are more likely to report sexual harassment or assault, suggesting the work environment and the male-dominated hierarchical structure of military organizations present unique challenges.

Deployment itself is a major stressor as it simultaneously separates soldiers from their usual environment with social and instrumental support systems and thrusts them into an unknown and highly demanding environment filled with danger and threat.

Maintaining high levels of vigilance for extended periods of time is bound to erode any soldiers’ physical and mental health. It is generally accepted now – perhaps more so than it was in the early 1990s when Gulf War Syndrome was first reported – that persistent levels of heightened stress take a major toll on physical health. We have some evidence that this extends to gender-specific health issues as well as general health, suggesting the need for heightened surveillance of endocrine and reproductive well being.

Finally, First Lady Michelle Obama has brought to national attention the complex needs of military families. Our recent studies have identified that family and work conflict was a significant and independent predictor of posttraumatic stress among women separated from their children. Future work disentangling the influence of such family and work stressors from non-modifiable combat-related stressors provides a fruitful approach to improving post-deployment adjustment and recovery of women and their families.

This body of research attempts to inform researchers, policymakers, clinicians and society at large about the ways in which military women have performed under adverse and stressful conditions, how they have coped with family separation and workplace stressors such as harassment and sexual assault and ultimately how they will adjust and return to their families and communities following wartime service.

Highlighting gender-related issues and problems is not to say that women are uniquely vulnerable, weak or otherwise unsuitable to carry out their duties. It is plausible, and there is some evidence to suggest, that women may fare well in these challenging situations in part because they are extraordinarily adept at establishing new social networks and more freely disclose emotions.

Military women serve with pride and commitment indistinguishable from their male counterparts as all service members make tremendous personal sacrifices to accomplish whatever mission is put before them. It is critical that professionals and citizens alike become aware of the needs of our returning veterans and find ways to successfully aid them in these transitions to maintain a healthy and productive life.


Penny F. Pierce, Ph.D., retired recently from the Air Force Reserve after 33 years of military service. She is an associate professor in the School of Nursing at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and a faculty associate at the Institute of Social Research. Pierce has received competitive funding from the TriService Nursing Research Program since 1992 to study the health, wellbeing and retention of Air Force and Army personnel following wartime service. Her e-mail is: pfpierce@umich.edu.

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