For almost a decade the war in the Middle East has been in full force. Countless news entities have given the world a dose of the chaos millions undergo, but through the media we only learn a thin layer of the reality. While many of us are chatting with an old friend on Facebook or enjoying a relaxing jog at the park, the lives of thousands of soldiers are either ending abruptly or are spiraling down a black hole that will take them to a state of physical, emotional and psychological trauma beyond what they ever imagined.
Some research has torn down the walls surrounding the impact the war has had on soldiers. However, most of the research conducted has been centered on males and their specific ways of adaptation to trauma and physical disabilities.
Although women have been in active duty for years, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are the first time all deployed servicewomen are in combat zones doing the same jobs as men. Over 1,200 American service members have lost limbs as a result of these wars, yet there is little research, especially on women, on how they are adjusting to life without one or more limbs.
As part of her dissertation, University of Arkansas doctoral graduate Janet Cater interviewed six women amputees to learn about their psychosocial adjustment to the loss of one or more limbs.
“There is little research on the psychosocial adjustment of women to amputation. As more and more American servicewomen receive combat injuries, such as amputation, it is critical to understand how they adjust to limb loss,” Cater says.
Over the course of about five months Cater researched and wrote her doctoral dissertation on their physical, emotional and psychological challenges. The women ranged in age from 20 to 36 at the time of injury. Five of the women were injured by either a rocket propelled grenade or an improvised explosive devise while in combat. Two women lost both legs, one woman lost one leg above the knee, one lost an arm and the other both arms. The sixth woman Cater interviewed had a leg amputation after a motorcycle accident and later served on a tour of duty in Iraq on a prosthetic leg.
Through phone conversations and interviews on Skype, she learned why these women chose to serve in the military and how their lives changed after their injuries.
She discovered that these women had a “kick-butt” attitude promoted by the military environment around them and that their recovery was influenced by the belief that their loss had meaning. The fact that their amputations occurred while protecting their country and freedom helped them cope with their injuries. For these women their loss of limb was a badge of honor of their service to the country that is usually ignored by the public.
Cater stated that while servicemen amputees are often thought to have received their injuries due to war, society does not accord the same recognition to servicewomen.
“If a young man goes out in public after suffering an amputation, people automatically think it was because of military duty and so he gets praised,” Cater says. But women often experience disbelief.
“People don’t tend to believe that these women perform the same duties as men and that they too can get hurt,” Cater says.
“One of the women I talked to told me she makes up stories about how she lost her arms because many people don’t believe she received those injuries as an explosive ordnance disposal technician in the Iraq War.”
The message all six women want to deliver through this research was that they would like to be appreciated for their service just as much as men are. Cater says that the disbelief the women receive is very disappointing, because they feel they too deserve respect and appreciation for their military efforts.
Through her study, Cater learned that these women have a high amount of resiliency. They all used humor and personal courage to cope with the changes life threw at them. Adaptation is the key to living everyday to the best of their abilities.
“One of the ladies can actually beat her husband in videogames while using her toes to work the controller,” she says.
With positive outlooks on life, these women are actively pursuing their goals with determination. Three are currently employed. One is taking her boards to become a prosthetist to help women in situations similar to hers regain confidence and control of their lives, and the remainder are either enrolled or planning to attend college. Two women continue to serve in the military: one has applied to become a helicopter pilot and the other turned down full medical retirement to continue to serve.
The six women that Cater got to know are only a few of the many that risk their lives for the safety of Americans. Over 220,000 servicewomen have fought in name of the United States since the beginning of the war: 130 of have died, over 600 have been injured and about 24 have lost one or more limbs.
The strength of these servicewomen as well as their unwavering pride amazed Cater. They chose to share their stories to help future servicewomen amputees and to advocate the great need for support and care for women who are experiencing the same struggles.
“It makes you put things in perspective. For these women every day is a struggle to adapt to the loss of limb. It makes you appreciate the ability to accomplish simple tasks simply because you have all of your limbs intact,” Cater says.