Women in war: what we don’t know
Ms Gai Brodtmann MP speaks with female members of the Australian Defence Force about their experiences as part of Female Engagement Team (FET) missions in Southern Afghanistan.

Over the last couple of years I’ve watched with interest how the ‘gender and Defence’ debates have unfolded in the Australian media. Debates about the inclusion of women in front line combat, physical standards for women in various occupational roles, and highly publicised ‘sex scandals’ have incited a range of political, professional and emotional reactions, and focused attention in a limited way on how gender roles are seen in the military today.

As an academic who has spent the last four years conducting an in-depth study of the health and wellbeing of Australia’s female veterans, I think debates about removing the restrictions from women’s participation in front line combat in particular have rendered invisible the considerable involvement Australian women have had in war and their exposure to trauma.

Women have served, and are currently serving, in situations very comparable to front line combat in all but name and classification. I listened to story after story from women who had deployed to Vietnam, Rwanda, East Timor, Iraq, Afghanistan, and many other operations. When I compared their experiences to the public discourse that argues the pros and cons of allowing women to serve at the ‘pointy end’ of war, it occurred to me that the debate implicitly, and often explicitly, suggested women’s experiences to date had been rather benign.

But what are the implications of this continued rhetoric? Are these debates furthering gender equity for women in the military? Are they empowering women?

I’d argue that they aren’t—instead, I think that they have an enduring negative impact on women in the ADF, by not legitimising their experiences in war or peacekeeping operations to date, and the impact those experiences have had.

Despite active service, multiple deployments, and combat-like roles, invariably women don’t identify themselves as being veterans. In the study this was an issue for women across all ages and deployment cohorts, regardless of occupational group or service type. An authentic veteran was seen to be male, older and likely to have served in World War I or II, Korea, Vietnam or a combat role.

My (DVA funded) research found that overwhelmingly women valued their careers highly in the ADF; they enjoyed the opportunities afforded them and the close knit team environment. Despite significant structural barriers that impede some women’s career progression (for example the lack of a sustainable model of part-time work), and the intensity of experiences their military career involved (deployment, maternal separation, belonging to a minority group), female veterans framed their experiences mostly positively.

Mental, physical and reproductive health and wellbeing issues that emerged as a result of operational deployment manifested in various ways, and opportunities to address them with timely and appropriate support and services were often limited.

The duality of the empowering and satisfactory elements of an ADF career superimposed upon inadequate opportunities for a fulsome career, poor post separation health and wellbeing resources and resultant negative outcomes gives rise to an ‘empowerment/disempowerment paradox’: women were both empowered by their career and achievements and disempowered through a lack of appropriate resources and support.

Readjustment to life after the military is a common challenge for all military personnel. Female veterans face many ambiguities in relation to their gendered sense of self; as mothers, partners, carers, or as they forge a new professional identity in a more gender balanced workplace.

Throughout the interviews, I was continually awestruck by the experiences and involvement ADF women described—far from benign, and often, far from ‘behind the wire’. What struck me more was that I hadn’t known, and that no one else seemed to know. In light of this the ‘should women be allowed it front line combat?’ question seemed out of place. My research demonstrates that women were continuously contributing to operations in a front-line capacity for decades. As ADF personnel who have given much to their country and sacrificed much to serve on operational deployment, veteran status is something women should embrace. In contrast, many distance themselves from this epithet.

The implications of this are more than symbolic. Rather, they manifest as significant barriers to accessing existing support services aimed at ‘veterans’.  This is then compounded when women do try to access services, only to find that they are limited, developed for a largely male clientele and incompatible with carer responsibilities.

Female veterans seeking support and care from a civilian health care provider also often perceive (and experience) limited understandings by those practitioners of the experiences or needs of female veterans. The current state for female veterans is one that leads to potentially worsening health and wellbeing.

The focus of ‘gender and Defence’ discourse needs to shift to the needs of female veterans, both current serving and following transition or separation. Events like ANZAC day should provide an opportunity to focus attention on the needs of female veterans and to generate discussion in a direction that might support military women where they most need it.

Samantha Crompvoets is a sociologist, and research fellow in the ANU Medical School and contractor to the Department of Defence. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.