Photo courtesy of the ACLU

Editor’s Note: The following is Part VI of “Hope on the Homefront,” the Ithaca Voice’s 10-part series on the struggles of the area’s veterans.

Read the introductionPart I; Part II; Part IIIPart IV; and Part V. Additional features and columns running as part of the series can be found here.

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ITHACA, N.Y. — Even now, when Jenny Pacanowski is driving down Ithaca’s Route 13, she finds herself scanning the roadside for bombs.

“I was always looking for IEDs in Iraq,” she says. “They were everywhere; snipers everywhere, the whole nine yards. That led to the hyper-vigilance thing.”

Pacanowski was a combat medic on convoys for the U.S. Army in Iraq for 11 months in 2004. An IED is an “improvised explosive device,” favored by militants in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and planted along the US military convoy routes.

On one night-time journey from Samarra, a city 70 miles north of Baghdad, to Tikrit, an IED exploded underneath the second truck in Pacanowski’s convoy and ripped through the passenger wheel. She could feel the whoomph through her flak jacket four vehicles away.

Photo courtesy of the ACLU

Who is going to save you if the medic is dead?

Pacanoswki can still feel the whoomph of that explosion when she’s driving today. The bombs were hidden in cardboard boxes or dead animals or buried in potholes: she learned to drive and scan the roadside from left to right every three to five seconds, looking for anything suspicious. The hypervigilance is hard to shake off.

“Everything was essential to surviving,” she says. “If I could get this truck from A to B as fast as possible without getting anyone else blown up… And I couldn’t get myself blown up because I was the medic. Who is going to save you if the medic is dead?

“Every once in a while a sound or something will tweak my PTSD.”

The coming spike in female vets in Tompkins

The number of female veterans living in Tompkins County is going to surge over the next 20 years, according to statistics from the VA.

  • In Tompkins County there are 404 female veterans; by 2043, that number is expected to be 696, an increase of 72 percent.
  • Conversely, the number of male veterans living in Tompkins in 2015 is 4,500, but by 2030 that number will be 3,186 and by 2043, 2,453: a decrease of 45 percent.
  • 66,052 female veterans live in New York State, 7.4 percent of the veteran population.
  • That is expected to grow to 15 percent before the US withdraws from current conflicts in the Middle East
  • Women veterans are three times more likely to be a single parent than their male counterparts
  • 28.7 out of every 100,000 servicewomen committed suicide in 23 states between 2000 and 2010, compared to 5.2 non-military women.
  • Women in the 18-29 age range being nearly 12 times more likely to commit suicide than non-veterans.
  • The National Center for PTSD found that 39 percent of women veterans report “intimate partner violence”.
  • One in five women treated at the VA responded “yes” when screened for “military sexual trauma”.
U.S. Navy file photo

The statistics add up to a pretty damning picture of how women veterans fare in our nation and community. The VA has admitted that the treatment of women veterans constitutes a “gap of care”.

‘I was totally losing the ability to function’

Pacanowski started to get PTSD symptoms in 2006, a year after getting back from Iraq. “It really hit me hard,” she says.

She started abusing alcohol and drugs. The doctors at the VA, where Pacanowski sought help, prescribed anti-depressants, sleeping pills and anxiety medications.

Jenny Pacanowski

“Being drunk and unemployed was a more acceptable solution to my situation than even considering I had a ‘mental disorder’. I didn’t know what else to do, I didn’t know what was happening to me. I was totally losing the ability to function, I would sleep 20 hours a day. When I was awake I was drinking to feel numb.”

Many women do not identify themselves as veterans, something Davi Mozie can attest to. Mozie is the newly appointed director of the Southside Community Center in Ithaca. She also served in the Navy from 1989 to 1993 as a combat medic who trained other medics before they were deployed overseas.

“Being a veteran is something that just does not come up. It is on my resume, but it is not something that I wear, that someone will know about me, unless they really look into my background. It’s always an afterthought. People will say, ‘Really? Oh, I didn’t know that.’

Why don’t more women identify as veterans?

Jordanna Mallach is the Special Programs and Outreach Coordinator with the New York State Division of Veterans’ Affairs. She has served with the Army National Guard since 2002, and still serves as an Assistant Operations Officer. She was deployed to Afghanistan from February to December of 2010.

“If you look at women who are coming out of the military now as a subset, that group is growing by leaps and bounds,” Mallach says.

“As a society we unconsciously judge women who go off to war,” she says. “I felt very judged when I left my two and-a-half year old daughter to go to Afghanistan.

“I felt the community viewed me differently than they viewed my male colleagues. It affected me, in terms of sharing my veteran status. The more I talk to women, I realize: ‘Who wants to feel judged?’ This look of pity would just appear on peoples’ faces whenever I talked about my overseas deployment.

‘They assume that you sat in the Green Zone and did nothing’

“The million dollar question is: ‘Why don’t women self-identify as veterans?’ says Mallach.

Pacanowski has a friend, also a combat veteran, who returned to Ithaca in 2007. She managed four months as a student at Cornell and then had to take a medical leave of absence.

Click on the Ithaca Voice Story Database to learn more. Stories on this topic are filed under “Hope on the Homefront.”

“At the time that she got here, people just were not aware of the returning veterans and what they were coming home with. Her being a woman didn’t help anything.”

Because people assumed she was the wife of a veteran, rather than an actual veteran.

“Or the girlfriend. Or they assume that you sat in the Green Zone and did nothing. I was at an event in New York City for veterans and this man comes up to me and we were chatting and I told him I was a combat medic and he’s like, “Oh, so you’re a real combat veteran.’”

How does Pacanowski now sum up the feeling of returning from the war? She doesn’t miss a beat, and says, “I felt invisible.”

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Melissa Whitworth

Melissa Whitworth is a freelance journalist, specializing in features and profile interviews. Email her at mwhitworth@ithacavoice.com or click on the icons in the top right for more.