When you picture the face of a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder, do you think of a woman?
You probably should.
Women are the fastest growing group of veterans to ask for help after leaving the service.
They are mothers, sisters and daughters fighting a new battle every day.
Nitza Rivera is a retired master sergeant who served 23 years in the Army.
Giovanna Martinez joined the military when she was 19 years old. Then she went to Fort Drum, New York and was deployed to Northern Baghdad.
They served their country proudly. But Rivera and Martinez didn't leave their service without wounds.
They are living with the effects of PTSD every day
“You diminish your service and your accomplishments because you think about the experiences that other people had, and they were worse than yours, so you compare, and you say why am I feeling this way when I didn't even experience half of what another person experienced,” Rivera said.
In 2009, James A. Haley Veteran's Hospital had about 5,500 women veterans enrolled. Now, that number has almost doubled to 9,000.
In fact, women are the fastest growing group of military veterans - nationwide.
Pamela Smith-Beatty, the Women's Veterans Program Manager at James A Haley Veterans' Hospital, said PTSD is one of the top 10 diagnoses.
Smith-Beatty said it's not just the violence and high-stress operations, it's also family.
She said women tend to take care of everyone else around them. Sometimes making the diagnosis worse once they get treatment.
Many women say it's extremely difficult to return to the "mommy role" after deploying. Conflicts with their kids are more common when they go home.
When Nitza started projecting anger on her daughter, she said she knew she needed help.
“She would let me know, like, ‘mom, you're too much.’ ‘Why are you always angry or why are you always in a bad mood?’” Nitza said.
Giovanna was medically discharged after being diagnosed with PTSD. Even after that, she said she was living in denial. She knew she was suffering but didn't understand it.
“Just having a whisper in my ear, saying things that weren't there. I don't know how to explain it, what was going on. Just a lot of irritability, a lot of anxiety, and I just didn't know how to deal with it,” Giovanna said.
Both women got help
“It was a great opportunity to get with other warriors that are going through the same thing and trying to find a solution to our issues and help each other out,” Giovanna said.
Nitza said she found peer support through Mission Continues and Habitat for Humanity.
“Just hearing other women talk about similar experiences and how they feel and how they dealt with it, it kind of validates you and tells you it's okay to feel that way and it'll be okay.”
PTSD may be something these women carry for life, but there are good days. It was just a matter of finding someone to help them carry their scars.
“It's still there right now. I just try to focus on the present moment and stuff,” Martinez said.
“It's always there. I don't think it's something that will ever go away. It's just a matter of now, learning how to manage those symptoms and be self-aware of when I'm struggling and when I'm having a hard time and when is it a good time to find help,” Rivera said.
That time is right now
Both women said if you're a veteran and you're struggling, don't wait any longer to reach out for help. The Tampa VA offers mental health services, which include individual and group counseling.
You can find more veteran coverage here.
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