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Home but Still Haunted

Trinette Johnson
Trinette Johnson of Clinton, who has post-traumatic stress disorder, served in Iraq with the D.C. National Guard: "It's almost like I'm there but I'm not there sometimes." (Andrea Bruce - The Washington Post)

If this result holds true, it would stand out because women studied in the overall population show markedly higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder than men -- about twice as much.

"It's not definitive, but it's encouraging," said Patricia A. Resick, director of the Women's Health Sciences Division of the National Center for PTSD, part of the Veterans Affairs Department. Resick said more research is needed.

While studies of the war's effects continue, one fact is clear: A generation of U.S. military women is at risk of combat-related stress disorder as never before.

A recent study showed that, overall, more than one in three U.S. troops sought mental-health care in the year after returning from Iraq. An earlier study found that about one in six showed signs of PTSD, major depression or anxiety after Iraq.

"From our data, what it looks like is that women serving in combat have the same risk as men of getting PTSD or other mental health conditions," said Charles W. Hoge of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

For Johnson, treatment at Walter Reed made things better, with group sessions, art therapy and combat-stress counseling. "You're in there with other people who are going through the same things," she said, "and you kind of feel like, 'Okay, now I don't feel crazy.' "

The most wrenching day, as she remembers it, was when she was sent home: Oct. 3, 2004. No longer did she have the supportive environment of the hospital. She was on her own, medically discharged from the military because of the stress disorder.

Outwardly, Johnson looked much the same: bright eyes peering through delicate glasses, big smile, always seeming on the verge of a laugh. "Dee," everyone called her. But much had changed. "I don't even know this life," she said one day.

For several months, while her fiance supported them, she could not bring herself to go to work. Finally, last year, she returned to her job as a receptionist in the National Guard building in Northwest Washington, which houses a museum lined with exhibits that depict combat.

The images did not bother her.

The hard thing was that in the life she returned to, almost no one seemed to understand Iraq. They did not know what it was like to live with hidden enemies and fatal explosions, to feel so far from family and become so attached to other soldiers.

Some people told her: "I couldn't have left my kids like that."

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