Susan Sonnheim has thrown away her shorts. It doesn’t matter that it’s a searing hot summer in Milwaukee. It’s pants only from now on, a full-body wet suit when she goes to the beach. The former National Guard member keeps her legs covered.
“They’re ugly,” she said.
Blown up in Baghdad at the beginning of the war by a roadside bomb, Sonnheim’s body was peppered with shrapnel. Hundreds of pieces remain lodged in her legs and throughout much of her body. Her left eye is fully blind. She has shrapnel lodged in her “good” eye, and her hearing is dulled. She underwent multiple reconstructive surgeries on her face and ear during a 19-month stay at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Sonnheim, 47, is home now, but she’s hardly comforted. She and many other women returning from war often are finding difficulty in the transition from warrior to wife, mom, student or simply civilian.
More than 1,500 women have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan and sought some type of help from veterans hospitals in Wisconsin, northern Illinois and Iron Mountain, Mich., ranking the region third-highest in the country. Milwaukee’s Zablocki Veterans Affairs Medical Center alone has seen more than 200 women since March 2003.
“Women are the fastest growing veteran population in the nation,” said Gundel Metz, coordinator for female veterans’ issues with the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs.
Some deal with problems that parallel those of their male counterparts. They’ve lost limbs, eyesight and hearing. They have digestive disorders, nightmares, anger and relationship problems.
But female veterans returning from war face ailments and traumas of other sorts:
More than 400 military women working in Iraq, Afghanistan and the region have reported they were victims of sexual assault from 2003 through May, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.
More female soldiers report mental health concerns than their male comrades: 24 percent compared with 19 percent, according to a Pentagon study released in March.
Roughly 40 percent have musculoskeletal problems that doctors say likely are linked to lugging too-heavy and ill-fitted equipment.
A considerable number — 28 percent — return with genital and urinary system infections.
There are gender-related societal issues that make transitioning tough, psychologists who work with female veterans say. Women are more likely to worry about body image issues, especially if they have visible scars, and their traditional roles as caregivers in civilian life can set them back when they return.
“Men come back and they have women fluttering around them taking care of them,” said Molly Carnes, a professor in the department of medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and director of the women veterans health program at the William S. Middleton Memorial Veterans Hospital in Madison. “Women come back and suddenly they’re thrust into the caregiving role, taking care of their children and supporting their husbands.
“Who takes care of the woman veteran?”
Although federal law bars women from ground combat, the chaotic nature of the Iraq war and lack of a conventional front line make everyone vulnerable. Fifty-three American military women have been killed in Iraq, more than the number killed in Korea, Vietnam and the first Gulf war combined.
Almost 400 women have been wounded in action in Iraq. Eleven women have lost limbs in recent operations there and elsewhere.
“Every single day at every moment, people are afraid they are going to die,” Carnes said. “That has long, enduring effects on the central nervous system, the immune system, hormone systems, the whole body. … It can restructure the way the body works.”
Veterans hospitals everywhere are changing their ways to be more welcoming to the growing number of women, who make up about 15 percent of the active duty force and 17 percent of the National Guard and Reserve. Recruiters say those percentages continue to climb.
At North Chicago VA Medical Center, the walls are being redecorated, the staff retrained and the literature in the waiting rooms updated to reflect women’s needs, said Katherine Dong, women veterans program manager.
“We’re making sure there’s no gender bias in the signage and that the military artwork on the walls includes men and women,” Dong said.
The hospital also tries to segregate the waiting room so women aren’t alone among a mass of men, she said. Receptionists are being taught to never assume that the man in a couple is the patient, a seemingly small but important observance that can make women feel valued, Dong said.
Perhaps most importantly, the hospital is making sure the doctors treating female veterans are proficient in women’s health issues. For example, many of the women in the war said they had to hold their bladders for long periods of time because they had no adequate alternatives.
“I had a woman tell me she would not drink liquids because she didn’t want to have to worry about having to go to the bathroom,” Dong said.
The North Chicago VA made one doctor responsible for all female vets, Dong said. That doctor then becomes familiar with issues and behaviors specific to women deployed to a war zone and can better treat them.
Sonnheim regularly passes through the revolving door at Zablocki. She ignores the small poster pasted to the door that reads, “The price of freedom is visible here.”
The 5-foot-3, 118-pound former military police officer doesn’t need the reminder. She’s paid the price. It’s part of her now, from the time she wakes up to an empty bed until the time she swallows her anti-depressants and falls asleep at night. Even then, images of Iraq weasel their way into her dreams, replaying the destruction it has wreaked on her world.
She and her husband of 20 years divorced within months of her medical discharge from the military in May 2005. He didn’t return calls seeking his perspective on their relationship.
“He blames me for everything,” she said. “He blames me for joining the military. He blames me for getting blown up.”
Her parents and siblings don’t know how to talk to her, often avoiding any discussion of Iraq, she said. She has no children, and her friends have distanced themselves.
“They say they found me difficult,” she said.
A few times Sonnheim has gone out to socialize, she’s gotten into trouble. On May 20, 2005, several days after returning to Milwaukee, Sonnheim was arrested for drunken driving. Sonnheim said she’s never been a big drinker, and records show the incident was her first of its kind. On March 7, she was arrested again for driving while intoxicated.
Sonnheim blamed her behavior on post-traumatic stress disorder and medications she takes to help alleviate the symptoms.
No drugs can stop the constant plugging and popping in her ears, which were injured in the explosion.
“I feel like I’m at high altitudes all the time,” she said.
Sonnheim is clearly proud of her service and said she is frequently frustrated by a lack of respect paid to female veterans.
She was disappointed at a recent event when a woman noticed her Purple Heart hat and said, “Oh, you’re the ones always calling me to donate my old clothes.”
“My heart sank,” Sonnheim said.
Even the Purple Heart pin she wears every day draws rude reactions from an unlikely group: veterans themselves.
Sonnheim works as a licensed practical nurse at Zablocki — the same job she held before she was deployed in 2003.
“They (patients at the hospital) will ask me, ‘Whose pin is that?’ or ‘Why are you wearing that pin?’”
When Sonnheim went to get her flu shot at the VA, “The clerk was asking everybody ‘What’s your name? What’s your name?’ Then when I got up to the table she said, ‘Are you a veteran?’
“They just don’t acknowledge women,” she said.
Sonnheim hopes to be more visible once she gets her driver’s license back next year. She bought a purple Mini Cooper and ordered license plates that read “SGT MP.”
“I want people to be aware,” she said.