War Deployment Tests Military Women's Faith

By Gross, Judy | National Catholic Reporter, March 4, 2011 | Go to article overview

War Deployment Tests Military Women's Faith


Gross, Judy, National Catholic Reporter


Life is never the same when a woman comes home from war. For the thousands of female veterans who have seen firsthand the horrors of combat, it is not so easy to move on past memories. Even women of strong faith find dark and terrifying times test their beliefs.

Beyond the obvious physical wounds are dark, invisible ones they will remember for the rest of their lives. Sexual abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder affect a high percentage of women who served in war zones.

"There were times when I prayed God would take me in my sleep," Maj. Leslie Haines said. "I became spiritually dead." A military police officer, Haines had back-to-back deployments.

First she was sent to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which she called a "morally depleting experience" caused by her experience of witnessing the appalling abuse of prisoners of war. She recounts being cornered by a major who raged at her because she wouldn't do something she considered wrong. "It wasn't like I could pick up my ball and go home." A month later, she was sent to Iraq.

There were reports of sexual assault problems in the unit in Iraq to which she was assigned. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that 22 percent of enlisted women have screened positive for military sexual trauma, compared to 1.2 percent of men. Haines was aware of a commanding sergeant major who was allowed to retire after admitting to the rape of a female soldier. "The military is male-oriented," she notes, "and women are afraid to talk about their abuse."

A Caregiver and Veterans Omnibus Health Services Act of 2010 contains provisions to help women veterans by providing training for mental health professionals who care for those struggling with sexual trauma. When an exhausted and injured Haines came home, she tore off her dog tags and said, "Never again!"

Medically discharged, Haines went home to Florida with the idea of reentering a "normal" life with a job and friends. She soon found that was impossible. "When I came back, I was totally different. Friends were not the same, I was not the same."

She lasted one week in her old job before fleeing to Indiana, not because she had ever been there, but because her grandparents had once lived there and she thought she could find refuge. Haines had no goal, no plans.

Eventually, she found herself in a Lutheran seminary where she was ordained a deacon. She now directs Lutheran Military Veterans and Families Ministries in Fort Wayne, Ind., which creates programs for returning soldiers and their families. Along the way, she discovered the Victory Noll Sisters and adopted them as her "grand-nuns." Through them, she found her future and healed her past. Sr. Rita Musante, her spiritual director and staunch supporter, along with 99-year-old Sr. Callista Ley and others in the convent, embraced the hurting soldier and provided a safe place.

The convent also embraced Haines' ministry, giving her unused space at the Victory Noll motherhouse in Huntington, Ind., to hold marriage and family retreats.

As this article was being written, Haines sat at Ley's bedside as she faded from life.

The loss of her friend has deeply affected Haines, but the former military police officer said she has found her mission and reason for being. "I know how it felt when I came back," she said. "I didn't want anyone else to not have someone to listen to them."

One outgrowth of military equality is the opportunity for women to be fully involved as combat soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, there is a price to pay. Women soldiers are armed and loaded with the same 60 pounds of equipment men carry into battle. Because of a lack of facilities in battlefield conditions, females often do not drink sufficient fluids, become dehydrated and suffer kidney damage.

Master Sgt. Trish Bunting, an Air Force public affairs photographer, first went to Iraq shortly after the U. …

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